Friday, September 22, 2006

Pitching to the Stars

I wrote about my great affection and appreciation for the original "Star Trek" a while ago, but in fact my relationship with the series goes a bit further than that. This is a story I don't tell very often--mostly because it ends in abject failure--but I did talk about it during my Comic-Con Spotlight Panel and I think it gives some insight into how I approached the writing of Mom's Cancer.

The 1960s' "Star Trek" was followed by another series that began in 1987 called "Star Trek: The Next Generation." It ran for seven seasons. I enjoyed the show as a fan, though never as passionately as I did its predecessor, and around the beginning of season six I heard from a friend that the show would consider scripts from unagented writers. This policy was unique in all of television and the news hit me like a thunderbolt. In a few weeks I came up with a story, figured out proper TV screenplay format, and sent off a full script with the required release forms. Shortly afterward, I followed with a second script, the maximum number they allowed.

I don't know how much later--surely months--I arrived home to a message on my answering machine. "Star Trek" wanted to talk to me. Neither of my scripts were good enough to actually shoot, but they showed enough promise that they were willing to hear any other ideas I might have. Would I care to pitch to them?

Yeah. I think so.

Paramount sent me a three-inch thick packet of sample scripts, writer's guides, director's guides, character profiles, episode synopses: all the background a writer would need to get up to speed (not that I needed them--I'd been up to speed since 1966). I spent several weeks coming up with dozens of ideas, distilled them to the five or six best, and made the long drive to Paramount Studios. Just getting onto the lot was a small comedy of errors: the guard at the gate didn't have my name on the list and I'd neglected to ask which office I was supposed to report to. Unlike anyone who's worked in Hollywood in the past 30 years, I wore a tie and sportcoat--a bad idea on a hot day when I was already inclined to sweat prodigiously. But I eventually made my way to the office of producer Rene Echevarria and threw him my first pitch. He stopped me after two sentences.

"We started filming a story just like that last week."

Crap. That was the best one.

Pitches two, three, four and five fared no better. After desperately rifling through my mental filing cabinet for any rejects with a hint of promise, I was done. In and out in less than 30 minutes, weeks of work for naught.

Still, I went home satisfied that I gave it my best shot. I wrote Rene a letter thanking him for the opportunity and expressing a completely baseless hope that he might give me another chance someday.

I got the next call a few weeks later. Rene had gotten my letter, looked over his notes, and decided that, although none of my pitches were good enough to shoot, I merited another shot.

Months later came my second try. Luckily, by now I was smart enough to spare myself the drive and pitch by phone. If I remember correctly, Rene liked a couple of my stories enough to take them to his bosses, but by this time the series was into its final season and the available episode slots were filling fast. In anticipation of the end of "The Next Generation," Paramount was already producing a successor series, "Deep Space Nine." In my last conversation with Rene, when it was clear "The Next Generation" was done with me, I asked if he could arrange for me to talk to "Deep Space Nine."

"Why would you want to pitch to those guys?" he asked, bewildered.

Nevertheless, I soon had an appointment to pitch to those guys, got another thick packet of blueprints and biographies, and started writing. I parlayed that opening into several pitches over the show's seven-year run, most to the very professional, generous and kind writer/producer Robert Hewitt Wolfe. And when Paramount started production on the next "Star Trek" series, "Voyager," I tried my old trick on Robert.

"Why would you want to pitch to those guys?"

So I got more packets of cool stuff, more experience, and more rejection. Although they liked some of my ideas enough to mull them over, I never got close. It was exhausting. At last, after eight or nine years and forty or fifty stories, "Star Trek" and I mutually agreed we'd had enough of each other and parted ways.

Lessons in Writing
Here's my point (and I do believe I have one, eventually): even as a complete failure, my experience pitching to "Star Trek" made me a better writer. What I realized was that the stories they quickly rejected focused on some science-fiction high-tech premise or plot twist, while the stories they liked focused on the characters. If I said something like, "Captain Picard begins at A, goes through B, and as a result of that experience ends up at C," I had their attention. I had to be hit over the head several times to realize that a good story isn't about spaceships or aliens or ripples in the fabric of space-time, but about people.

That sounds blindingly obvious, but I realized how unobvious it was as I talked to friends and family about the experience. As soon as someone realizes you have a distant shot at actually writing a "Star Trek" episode, they can't wait to share their idea with you (never mind how fast they'd sue if you actually used it). And literally without exception, every idea I heard from someone else was about a spaceship, alien, or ripple in the fabric of space-time. Not one that I recall even mentioned a character, how they'd react to the situation, or how they might be changed by it. Once I learned to look for it, it was striking.

These were lessons I internalized as best I could and took into the writing of Mom's Cancer. I realized early that my story couldn't be about the medical nuts and bolts of cancer treatment. First, because there are too many treatment options for anyone to cover; second, because I knew such information would be obsolete very quickly; and third and most importantly, good stories are about people. My book isn't about radiation and chemotherapy and cancer, but about what those things do to a family. If something I scripted or sketched didn't drive my mother's story--if the plot didn't serve the characters--I cut it.

Whatever success Mom's Cancer has had and will have, I think that was the key. With all due gratitude to all the Treks.


Milinda said...

I kept watching the credits, hoping to see your name in print/lights. You were doing what I always wanted to do but was afraid to try. I'm still impressed that you did it.

There will be another Star Trek down the road in a couple of years. Your name will surely be on that one. Several times.

In the meanwhile, here's a blog you might find mildly entertaining:

patricia said...

How exciting!! And how I wish you had actually got one of your scripts accepted. Still, pretty darn cool.

I loved your Star Trek essay, btw. The original Star Trek meant a great deal to me as a teenager, too. One of the most insightful and profound televisions shows ever created, I think.

I read on Mike's blog about how you got that trivia question right, and it got me thinking about which episode was my favourite one. Hard to name just one! I think there's three that I consider the best. I asked my husband last week, just before we were to go to bed which Star Trek espisode was his favourite, and it began a very long conversation with us naming and describing all the episodes we could think of. Romantic, huh?

I'd love it if you were to write a future post going into detail about which are your favoutite episodes, and then explain why.


BrianFies said...

Milinda, thanks again. Sorry to disappoint, I tried my best. And I've been reading Wil Wheaton's blog pretty regularly for a long while. He's a good writer and I enjoy his work (though I could live without his poker fascination).

Patricia, I promise to take up your suggestion soon. Thanks for the idea. Choosing my three favorite Star Trek episodes is an interesting problem: my top two come to mind immediately, but number three is going to be tough. There are a lot of contenders. Still, I'm very impressed by your idea of pillow-talk. Rrrrow.