SPEAKING WITH… D.C.FONTANA

PART THREE

A couple of notes before we go on to the reason we are all here: 1: Don’t forget to go over to my message board, What The Hey and join in on the ongoing conversations or begin one of your own. 2: The poll I took all-too-many months ago is being tallied by someone other than me who actually knows what he’s doing. That means the results should be published very soon now. And 3: Lastly, I also want to remind everyone about my website, marvwolfman.com. It is growing by leaps and bounds and if you have any thoughts on how to make it even better, I’m listening.

And now…

Welcome to the third and final part of the D.C. Fontana interview. I think this is one of the best that has ever graced the pages of What Th--? And I deeply thank Dorothy for it. Without further ado, let’s proceed:MW: WHAT MAKES A STORY?
DF: When I teach at the AFI, that question takes a couple of weeks to develop. At the most basic level, using David Gerrold’s teachings, a story is defined as “a person with a problem.” You have to have both to have a story that will work. Most stories have a theme – what you’re trying to say – and they have to have a plot and characters to say it. But it doesn’t have to be “on the nose.” When I wrote JOURNEY TO BABEL, one of the buzz themes of the time was the “generation gap,” i.e. the lack of communication between parents and children or maybe just between youngers and elders. BABEL was about that; but it was also about love between parents and children, how it can be shattered and how it might be redeemed. The main plot of the story was the Babel conference, who was trying to wreck it and how they tried to do it. The subplot was Spock and his parents, especially Sarek, and their conflict of emotions. (Yes, Vulcans do have emotions; they just control them extremely well most of the time.) The subtext of the emotional story was largely left unsaid – the costs of the estrangement.

How do you make them all come together in one smooth story (if you’re lucky)? Sweat, hard work, and good material to start with. Sometimes the plot, subplots, theme and subtext won’t come together. Then you have to go back to look at what you’re working with. Do they all relate to one another? Are you saying it the best way you can? Does it make sense? Often, a little time away from the material can give you a better perspective on it. If you have to be poring over it day after day, you may be too close to it to see it clearly.

MW: HOW DO YOU PITCH AN IDEA TO AN EDITOR, STORY EDITOR AND/OR PRODUCER?

DF: As I said earlier, in any pitch I make, I like to have solid beginning, middle and end plot points in place, plus the character problem and its resolution. For television, I try to go in with three or four well-developed stories in mind and maybe a couple of others that are sketchier. Television episodic series tend to support one major plot, only one major subplot and (maybe) a short subplot (the A, B and C lines). For features, I go in with one well-developed story with several subplots, plus one less developed story to fall back on in case the first one is rejected. For a novel, it’s pretty much just one well-developed story with lots of subplots.

I try to keep any individual verbal pitch to about five minutes for television, ten to fifteen minutes for features. You have to know your material and be able to pitch it well. If you need notes, no one minds if you refer to them. However, if the pitchee starts falling asleep or his/her eyes glaze over, you’ve lost him. You’ve also probably gone on too long or gone into too many minor details. If you’re new at it, I suggest you do a couple of things: rehearse in front of a mirror or videotape yourself so you can see your own body language. By video or audio taping yourself, you can also hear how your voice sounds. If you’re pitching with a partner, go over it together so you can smoothly hand off to one another for different parts of the pitch. You can also ask your friends and relatives to listen to your pitch. If they’re bored, it’s a bad sign, and you would do well to rethink your presentation. If they have too many questions, you probably haven’t been as clear as you should be in your pitch. If they think it’s just wonderful, find someone else and get a second opinion. (The trouble with friends and relatives is they love you and don’t want to hurt your feelings.) Go back to your video or audio tape. Would you buy that story from this writer?

Pitching to an established series has its pitfalls. You may not know all the stories they’ve done or already have in the works, and you may hit on something they’ve done or will do. Maybe the writer who came in just before you pitched the same general concept. That’s a natural hazard of the business. The best ideas are the ones the producers wouldn’t think of because they’re too close to their show. That often involves coming up with a very unusual plot or an unusual problem for the main character(s). You, as the outsider, may be able to see those stories because you are an outsider. Ask those “what if…” questions! Also ask the “how come…” questions. (Like “how come Spock doesn’t speak about his parents?”)

Original ideas are often easier to pitch because you’re coming to the party with your very own cake. Because you made it, you know everything about it. Of course, you have to convince the producer that this is absolutely the best cake in the world and he/she would be mad to turn it down. You can, of course, easily be turned down – but that just means that particular producer didn’t like your choice of cake. Or maybe he/she was just having a bad day. (MGM had first chance to do STAR TREK, and they turned it down. Bet they’ve been kicking themselves around the block over that for thirty-six years.) One rejection doesn’t mean other producers won’t like your story; you just have to keep trying. George Lucas tried about eleven studios and production companies when he was trying to sell STAR WARS; Alan Ladd Jr. and 20th Century Fox were the ones who finally went for it. Phil Alden Robinson tried for nine years before he sold FIELD OF DREAMS. This job is not for the faint of heart.

MW: HOW DO NEW WRITERS GET THE ATTENTION OF STORY EDITORS, PRODUCERS, ETC.?

DF: Tough question because there’s a tough answer. It isn’t easy. First, you have to get an agent. Or at least an entertainment lawyer who can represent you. If you have contacts in the business, network like crazy. You know somebody who knows somebody who might put in a good word for you. Having an agent at least opens doors, though you will always be the one who has to get the job on the strength of your work. With an agent, you can put a spec script in to a show or production company and get it read (some time by somebody – maybe not the producer or even the story editor, but by somebody on the show or with the company). Without an agent, it is much much harder to get your material read unless the studio or production company lets you sign a waiver. There are very few studios or production companies today who accept waivers.

Project Green Light has been helpful to some people. That’s the Matt Damon/Ben Affleck submission program at Projectgreenlight.com. Kevin Spacey has just opened up an opportunity for new people to get material read at triggerstreet.com. It is free, but requires that you review at least two scripts before you may put your own script up for review. Reviews are at least 50 words long, and there is a criteria chart for rating aspects of the script such as characterization, dialogue, plot, etc. A good script (with good reviews) will draw attention. It’s a long shot. At this writing in late November, they have been on the net for ten days and had over a thousand entries, but it may very well be worth a try.

MW: WHAT ARE YOUR GOALS AND WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO DO WHEN WRITING IN OTHER PEOPLE’S UNIVERSES?

DF: I think when playing in other people’s universes, a writer has to write what best serves those characters and those universes. It’s someone else’s sandbox, and you’re only allowed to play within their rules. There are rules, and the visiting writer best helps himself by learning them. You’ll often find you can bend the rules, but breaking them just causes problems for you. As an example, when writing VULCAN’S GLORY (a Trek Classic novel), I could bend a lot of the “canon” rules because I was writing about Spock’s first voyage on the Enterprise with Captain Pike. Therefore, many Kirk-TREK rules weren’t in effect, and I could write a lot of what I pleased. There were still STAR TREK rules, but they were more general in relation to what I was writing.

MW: WHEN YOU ARE IN CHARGE AND OTHER WRITERS WRITE YOUR CHARACTERS, WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING FOR AS THE EDITOR AS WELL AS THE CREATOR?

DF: Well, so far, I’ve been an editor and not a creator, but I would always be looking for the same things – evocative characters, exciting stories, interesting themes. Does the writer understand the show, the characters? Does he/she want to serve the project or just write what he/she wants to write? That’s one of the main failings I’ve discovered when a writer doesn’t work out. The writer doesn’t want to write the show; he just wants to do the show/project his way. That never works. In that case, that writer should be creating his own project.

MW: HOW DO YOU DEFINE YOUR RELATIONSHIP UP FRONT WITH YOUR EDITOR, STORY EDITOR, PRODUCER, THE WRITERS WHO WORK UNDER YOU?

DF: I think we all must be professionals and respect each other as such. On a television show, the story editor and/or producer must know his/her own show well and be able to tell other writers what is wanted. An editor or producer who can’t convey what it is he needs for the story/script is useless to a writer. All the writer can do is try everything he can to deliver what is wanted and pray it’s the right thing. An editor or producer who is clear in what he wants and can tell that to the writer is a godsend. When I am an editor or producer, I make copious notes and give them verbally and in writing to the writer. I’m always open to questions and clarification. After all, the writer is doing the hard work, and the editor or producer’s job is to make that as easy and comfortable as possible.

MW: WHAT IS YOUR GENERAL ADVICE TO WRITERS AND WOULD-BE WRITERS?

DF: Write. Read a lot – there’s story material everywhere. Write. Watch the television and movies and read the novels that interest and intrigue you. Write. Write more. Not everything you put down on paper (no matter how long you’ve been at it) is going to be golden. Be open to constructive criticism. Write. Get it out there to people who can buy it. Write.

And on that note, I want to again thank Dorothy for her time, patience and her answers. These are not simple questions that can be answered simply. Many of the writer friends I have are astonished at how difficult they are because, being both professional and caring, they want to answer the questions thoroughly and not slapdash them off. Which, of course, I am mercilessly counting on.

Take care everyone and see you in seven.
-Marv

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