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The Trek Nation - Writing For Star Trek Part VI: Reflection & Self-Evaluation

Writing For Star Trek Part VI: Reflection & Self-Evaluation

By Joseph D. Di Lella
Posted at December 21, 2002 - 10:25 AM GMT

Since the last article, I bet you breezed through the front gate (or slipped through the back door) of Paramount Pictures, entered the Hart Building, and asked for a job. Did you earn a high-paying writing post on Enterprise? No? How about winning a WGA internship? No again? Perhaps they hired you as webmaster of the official Star Trek web site?

What's that you say? Not one production person, staffer or executive producer granted you even a fifteen-minute informational interview session? For all your efforts you deserved, at minimum, a lunch date at Sardi's with Rick Berman and Brannon Braga. I promise to reprimand those two gentlemen when I see them at my next elegant dinner party (the one I have scheduled for the first Friday night of 2403).

If you haven't made the trek to Los Angeles to place your application in the hands of the proper people yet, don't panic. Do it when you're ready. Keep after them (in a polite way) until you receive a friendly response. Just remember, it might take months for a reply.

For now, forget about the status, money and power gained by working in the Sci-Fi world of Hollywierd. Let's put external validation completely aside. Instead, it's time to look inside to see what makes a successful Star Trek writer.

A Star Trek Writer's Playbook


In case any of you out there are NFL football fans, you may have noticed that the San Diego Chargers are off to a great start this season (6 wins, 1 loss). When questioned by the local media about a particularly humiliating loss (27-9) to the Denver Broncos several weeks back, Head Coach Marty Schottenheimer responded, "Will we learn anything from that defeat? I don't know. I've always said, I'd rather learn from success than failure any day." I doubt the head coach even showed footage of the terrible performance to the players.

Sure, one can learn from mistakes - in fact, that's about the only time a person ever tries to truly look at him/herself objectively. But why fill one's head with images of slipped tackles, fumbled punts and missed defensive coverages that allow the opponents to score? For our purposes, let's put a positive spin on your latest writing efforts, okay? Remember, it only takes a few good plays to push that pigskin across the goal line.

If I were a football coach, I would say there's at a minimum of ten plays you must commit to memory if you're to win in the Trek entertainment industry. Those plays are:

Play One: The Writer Inside


The creative process is an individual construct of one's reality. How the writer bends and shapes that perception is the key ingredient to becoming a visionary. When a person acts on the new-found burst of energy, he/she is transformed into artist.

Remember our talk about Leonardo da Vinci? The Renaissance Italian was quite an inventor and artisan, there's no question about it. Still, his views might seem outdated to the hip-hop crowd of the early 21st century. Therefore, if da Vinci's approach to creativity seems much too involved for you, then take his best ideas and run with it. Make up your own model.

For my tastes, I admire the man and his philosophy on life. I don't deploy all of his suggestions, but I try. And that's the key - learning from others, picking up on their strength of purpose, their hope for a better tomorrow. As a writer, you must imagine life as it should be, not what it must be, or is, at its worst.

Isn't that the reason we hate the Borg? This villainous race reflects the way of life found in several countries of the 21st century that suppresses individual rights. It's the threat of ultimate conformity to the sole leader, the insidious nature of the hive mind, that makes the Borg so frightening. I doubt Trek will ever change the political or cultural reality of such countries, but it alerts us, in a basic way, to these predicaments.

As a Trek writer, you can illustrate these points in the literary backdrop of science fiction. That's one of the major messages Gene Roddenberry wanted us to learn from his work. Gene believed each of us, as individuals, could shape the future in a positive way.

As a future bard, your contribution, your challenge, is to become the best damn Star Trek writer you can possibly be. Even a poorly-written story like 'A Night in Sickbay' makes a point about accepting cultural diversity. If you can write stories that inspire the young, perhaps down the road, your words will make your corner of the universe more tolerant and accepting of all members of society. Gene would be proud of such an effort.

Play Two: Starting Small


Do you have what it takes to write a short story? A book? A teleplay? How about an entire television series? Of course you do. Even though you may only have a few notes on several bits of crumpled paper, that single idea scribbled on a napkin could be the one that blossoms into great success. My good friend Harry 'Doc' Kloor became a recognisable television scribe in the Sci-Fi world by working on an interesting concept found on a scrap of old paper.

In the mid-1990s, Harry was given the assignment to flesh-out a Gene Roddenberry story premise from only a tiny bit of paper. From that thirty-odd year old, half-page of Gene's handwritten notes, 'Doc' Kloor banged out the story bible (characters, main premise, and direction of the earliest story lines) for the series. A few years later, it made the airwaves as Earth: Final Conflict.

Sometimes, that's the way it's done in the business. In this instance, Majel Barrett Roddenberry sifted through Gene's papers and found the kernel, the nugget for a winning idea. Where do you think Andromeda came from?

It's never the volume of the pages that persuades agents, editors, publishers or television staffers that you're a star. The quality of the notion, its uniqueness, is what makes professionals stand up and notice the writer. No matter the road you take, struggle with the idea until it comes out fresh, original and unique. If you can't say at least that much about the work, throw it in your 'ideas box' in your desk or closet, and start on another project.

Play Three: Completing the Homework


Like Harry and other university scholars, us eggheads have made it our business to stay current in our respective fields of expertise. As a Star Trek writer, you too must know what's out there in bookstores, on the Internet, on television and in the theatres. If not, the next great idea you have may be the one that's been out there for the last two years.

Make it your business to see trends in the literary marketplace. Last year, we found intrigue in the Section 31 books (covering four of the Trek television series). Did you notice the new book series on Starfleet engineers? Which types of stories, over the years, have won the 'Strange New Worlds' competition? As an potential author, you must make sure your research is extensive and comprehensive.

Can you tell me which Star Trek characters (of the five different television series) have their own stories in Pocket Books? For example, the story of General Martok's return to the Klingon Empire after the events of Deep Space Nine will be told in the two-book series 'The Left Hand of Destiny,' currently set for release in March and April, 2003. Did you know that?

Don't duplicate marketable ideas and you have a chance at a literary contract.

Play Four: A Slightly Different Notion


Even if there's unique material on bookstore shelves, that doesn't mean you can't shake things up with a subtle change to make millions. Straying off course from the Trek universe for a moment, I'm certain most of you know that the main idea behind Bram Stoker's book, 'Dracula' (1897), was taken directly from an urban legend. Who knows where the original idea came from, as it was passed down through oral storytelling over the centuries. But it's Stoker who gets the credit. Why? A publisher saw a neat idea and a chance to make money. Yet, did the idea die there, alone in a bloody puddle?

Thirty-four years later in 1931, Bella Lugosi's portrayal of the evil prince of darkness made cinematic history. People around the world embraced the beloved the actor and the scary role he made his own. The idea didn't stop there, either. Other permutations of the frightening bloodsucker eventually hit the movie houses, such as 'Son of Dracula' (1943), starring Lon Chaney, Jr.. Nearly half a century later, a young screenwriter blended comedy into Stoker's story, creating a different type of vampire movie: 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' (1992). Though the flick was universally panned by critics, Buffy moved from the silver screen failure to the small screen success in the mid-1990s.

Joss Whedon is another one of my heroes. Whedon's a writer who has vision and talent. From his unsuccessful screenwriting experiences, Joss turned his novel approach to vampires into a funny, hip, frightening, intelligent TV show. Joss simply extended the original idea of a one-dimensional protagonist (shy, pretty, unworldly girl) staking the living dead into a complex storyline about coming of age and female empowerment.

Buffy has also spun-out another successful series. Angel, now in its fourth season, focuses on a vampire with a soul, his gang of friends, and the role he will play in the upcoming apocalypse. When Buffy rides off into the sunset, her sister Dawn may take over and win Whedon yet another few years on television.

Why did Whedon's concept work? Like Roddenberry's vision of Trek, Whedon uses the slaying of vampires and other evil beings as a backdrop to displaying humanity's struggle with itself. If Gene can take the approach to show 'good vs. evil' in outer space, why can't Josh do it, just as well, through the heroic actions of a teenage girl here on Earth or a reformed vampire with a mission to save the helpless? It's simply a twist on an old idea.

Play Five: Dedication


Oakland Raider Jerry Rice, arguably the greatest receiver in NFL history, celebrated his 40th birthday the other day by catching his 199th touchdown pass. How does he keep on going? He runs daily and works out about five hours a day - in his off-season. Just imagine what he does during his days from August to December/January. Can you say the same about your writing work habits?

As a writer, you only need to exercise your fingertips on the computer keyboard. But that means you must first give the mind a healthy diet of reading, revising and reflecting on your most recent piece. You can take days off. However, if you're putting off the difficult, alone hours watching television instead of writing, who are you cheating? Not me. Not your significant other. Yes, you're only hurting the one you love most of all - yourself.

Play Six: Find a Friend, Then Act Alone


When I was a youngster in school, my father would offer great advice on my book reports, writing projects and anything else academic. Pop was my mentor, and my best friend. That meant a hell of a lot to me. He instilled good work habits that sharpened my mental skills and my approach to school.

Still, there one instance when I wished he had left well enough alone. In junior high, he volunteered (i.e. wrote) two Optimist Club speeches for me. I took second place in one, honourable mention in the other. The trophies were nice, but I didn't really learn or stretch my limits on either occasion. Ghostwriting does not cultivate the soul of a beginning storyteller.

Do you have a supportive person in your life now? Grab them by the hand, lead them to a dinner spot or drinking hole, and pick their minds for advice on your recent Star Trek story, teleplay, or book proposal. Don't abuse the privilege.

Most importantly, don't let a 'clinging' mentor change your work; i.e. make their voice your own. A smart teacher knows when to push, and when not to intrude into a student's world. It doesn't work with the young (my earlier example with my pop), and it sure doesn't help a more mature writer either.

Today, when Elsbeth has the time, my significant other proofreads my work. Still, I'm always on the look-out for a friendly face or a warm-hearted friend to review my material. My father suffered a stroke a few years back, which put his best reading days behind him. But that's okay. Paulo put in more than enough time nurturing my ambition when he was younger. And who wants to share writing credits or royalties with their father? I do...

Play Seven: Finish the Damn Thing


Procrastination is the worst habit a writer can acquire, whether through laziness or fear. Put the pen to paper. Let the words out. If they're poorly organized in the first few drafts, who cares? Save the work, in case you need to look at a passage you might want to incorporate later on. Simply put: Snooze, you lose. The best work of your life may be the one that never gets written.

If you don't need to write, then quit fooling yourself. But if there's a nagging little voice that keeps telling you to keep at it, by all means, continue. Listen to the muse.

Play Eight: Can I Get Your Card?


Meeting professionals in the business world is the only way to land your work in the winner's circle. Here's an idea: go to a bookstore. Attend a local author's book signing. Read the writer's autobiography. How did the writer's life influence the story? Then, listen to his/her presentation about the upcoming book. Ask questions afterwards. If possible, obtain an e-mail address, so you may keep in touch with this person. Professional writers can be a great source of motivation, support and encouragement.

Network at professional gatherings whenever possible. Famous Hollywood people attend writer's conferences. Many participate in science fiction conventions. Look on the Internet for upcoming events in your area.

When you find a worthwhile event, gas up the Corvette, and make a dash for ticket office. As a suggestion, attend the San Diego Comic Con in July of 2003. Go to panel discussions. Listen to television and movie directors discuss their latest projects. Contribute questions.

At a convention years ago, I walked up to Howard Gordon (former writer and producer of The X-Files) after his talk to the audience, and asked him for a writing intern position on his new show, Strange World. I submitted a spec script for consideration, but sadly for me (and Howard), the series was cancelled by ABC after only six shows hit the air. However, I can say that that one brazen effort buoyed my confidence. Eventually, it landed me other opportunities down the road.

I warn you, a few of the big shots are not so nice. Regardless, take their business cards, get their fax numbers, e-mail addresses and keep in touch. Down the road, when you're ready, maybe they can help you become the next great screenwriter or literary figure.

You must maintain a friendly, easy-going relationship with whomever you think will move you ahead in the writing business. Making contact once a week is probably too often to milk a professional lead, but frequent note passing (emails and letters) is advisable.

Gaining another's respect is the only thing you could possibly ask for. Do not ask for a job right away. If you can help another writer, great. The good karma might just work for you down the road. If they can reciprocate, accept their help.

If you have little in common with the contact, don't try to become his/her best friend. Feel out the situation. Stay cordial, but professional. Don't feel the need to be 'loved' by everyone. If the relationship sours or fades away, move along home.

Play Nine: What's the Weather Like Outside Today?


During writing dry spells, go out in the world. Close the books. Push away the computer keyboard.

Do you remember the advice Ben gave Jake in the DS9 episode 'The Visitor'? To reduce the obsessive-compulsive behaviour of the would-be author, the father took his son on an away mission to see the wormhole go through a sub-space inversion. That doesn't help. The flustered young teenager (who was having a particularly rough time finishing a story) remains holed-up in his room. His 'old man' places the work of a writer in context by telling his son: "It's life Jake. You can miss it if you don't open up your eyes."

As suggested in Michael Taylor's episode, everyone must live life outside the confines of work, school, and the local neighbourhood. The best writing comes from fascinating personal experiences. For example, like Ernest Hemingway, you could attend a bullfight in Spain or Mexico and write about the experience for a paper/travel magazine.

Let's say you took this assignment and flew off to cover the event. Did you feel the crowd's high emotions? Did you better understand the culture of a country; the ritualistic slaughter of the animal? Essentially, any interesting activity you throw yourself into helps you become a better writer, not only in the Star Trek world, but in other genres as well.

When the bookstores and convention halls close, leave for parts unknown. Drive to the country. Take the trolley line to the city. Talk with people from different backgrounds. Learn their stories. Write a few down mentally, and keep track of the most unique and entertaining ones. When the lights close in the smoke-filled bars, go home. Write the tales. Let their words inspire you to experience more unusual roads in your travels. That, as suggested by Ben to Jake, is living your life.

Play Ten: Commitment or Committed?


'Far Beyond the Stars,' a beautifully crafted episode in the world of DS9, hits the mark because it passionately illustrates not only the anticipated joy, but also the heartbreak of the writer. Who out here hasn't had his/her dreams taken to the stratosphere only to see them smashed on the sidewalk of broken hopes? Though Avery Brooks goes a bit over the top towards the end, his character for all of us who often can't accept the realities of the publishing game. It's a tough business to win at, especially at ten cents a word. But is a career in writing worth the years of poverty and tormented, emotional suffering?

In a DS9 follow-up story (in the episode 'Shadows and Symbols'), we find science fiction writer Benny Russell (a.k.a. Benjamin Sisko) in the loony bin for believing he is the lead character of his Deep Space Nine stories. Captain Sisko breaks the false vision offered up by the 'evil' Prophets when the Emissary realizes he must write his story, no matter the cost. This sequence of events symbolises the sometimes blurry line between reality and the fantasy world of writers everywhere. Do not allow yourself to step into that world of make believe at the expense of your sanity, friend.

In plain words, try to maintain a balance in your life. Don't allow the writer in you to overpower your need to have a real life. In your haste to become the next great Sci-Fi writer, you must measure the cost of sacrificing too much of yourself for the probable return of so little. Of course, psychological satisfaction (completing the work) cannot be balanced in a ledger. But is it enough for you? Your family? Your posterity?

Conclusion


The main approaches I took to enter the sacred world of Star Trek may not necessarily be the ones that take you down the right road to Simon and Schuster or any of the other New York publishing giants. Certainly, there are other experts who will give you other directives and edicts to become the next great Trek scribe. If you find such a teacher or mentor that places the writing process in a paradigm that makes better sense to you, by all means, employ it. Hug it. Love it. Diverse approaches are what make this crazy world rotate.

Yet, if I have fanned the flames, given you inspiration (not false hope) that there's a writer in you just begging to get out, I've accomplished my goal. Write, read, re-write, collaborate, finish the project, meet people, submit the work, start another project. If rewards come your way, praise the saints. If not, ask yourself one question: could I, or anyone else, truly have stopped you from becoming the writer you are today?

The trick is to continue your quest for recognition, survival and publication even when everyone's against you. Just promise me you won't end up like Benny Russell, alone, destitute and obsessing over the work. Okay?


Coming soon to the Trek Nation (in two instalments): "How to Pitch for Star Trek." Good luck and good writing.


Correction: The 2002 San Diego Comic Convention had a grand total of 63,000 participants and professionals in attendance. The figure that was reported in an earlier article [75,000] was a premature estimate.

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