9 Things Star Trek Can Teach You About Writing

1) Readers Matter

In the first STAR TREK film, Gene Roddenberry finally had the budget to create all the footage he wanted of ENTERPRISE just sitting there, looking real purty, and by gum he was gonna use it all. While I don’t mind watching all those minutes, 22 or 187 or whatever it was, most folks think that’s too much. If most of your readers say something needs to be changed or added or deleted, listen to them.

2) Characters Matter

When the second pilot was filmed, it was pre-ordained that William Shatner was the star. Since Spock was the only character from the first pilot to also appear in the second pilot, it was safe to assume Leonard Nimoy was a costar. McCoy and the chemistry just kinda happened.

When I write, character comes first, and plot etc. unfold from there. Even if you start from some other place, character always matters. Nothing happens unless it happens to somebody, and that somebody is who your reader cares about regardless of species.

When you write, have some sort of plan, and have some control, but be flexible. If your story’s telling you to go in a certain direction, listen to it. That might be your characters talking to you. (And yes, I know you made them all up. Don’t bother me with details.)

3) Turn Weaknesses into Strengths

Why did the ENTERPRISE have a transporter? Because it wasn’t in the TV show’s budget to film launch and landing sequences for shuttlecraft on various and sundry new planets every week. This forced the writers to invent the transporter, and that’s some seriously cool tech. STAR TREK wouldn’t be STAR TREK without it.

4) Forget Grammar

Okay, not really. Spock used English with scientific precision and it wasn’t even his first language. Speaking as your editor, please don’t forget grammar. You can break any rule you want if you have a good reason. Never break a rule from ignorance. But if you’ve got a reason, go for it. That’s how we as authors change the language.

Why did Shakespeare invent 10% of the words he used? Because if he’d invented 20% or 50% he’d have confused too many of his viewers.

Meanwhile, the “rule” about splitting infinitives is totally bogus. “To boldly go” is a perfectly good English phrase. In Latin, it isn’t possible to split an infinitive because “to go” (for example) is one word. You can’t write “to boldly go” in Latin because “to go” is only one word. Someone decided English grammar should follow Latin grammar — that sounds like some of Noah Webster’s rubbish — and was soundly shouted down for being too stupid to live. Feel free to boldly split infinitives like James Brown split tight pants. Then jump back and kiss yourself.

5) Wishful Thinking Is Allowed

In the STAR TREK future, everybody quotes long passages of Shakespeare from memory. If I say it like that, it might sound hard to believe, but in the context of the STAR TREK world, it fits. It’s allowed. Dagnabbit, people should quote Shakespeare from memory, just like that cockatiel I taught when his humans were away. I never could teach him context, though.

6) It’s Not About The Money

Okay, sometimes it was about the money. But in roughly two years of the original show and roughly ten years of Next Generation, it wasn’t about the money. In most of the films, including some of the stinkers, it wasn’t about the money.

I’ve always said that you should write what you’d like to read, then find readers who share your interests. Yep, that’s what Gene Roddenberry did. He believed in world peace, racial and gender integration, trying to shake off old prejudices to the best of our limited abilities, freedom of religion and non-religion, true equality for women rather than today’s lip service, gay rights, cooperation rather than killing, the Prime Directive of non-interference in viable developing cultures, war as a last and not a first resort, and seeing just how much political and religious commentary he could slip past the censors, who weren’t as bright as the average STAR TREK viewer. (I like to think the censors weren’t always as clueless as they pretended to be.)

Did Roddenberry really believe in the cashless society? If a “credit” or a “quatloo” walks like a dollar bill and quacks like a dollar bill… oh, wait, that’s not Roddenberry, that’s Terrell Owens. Never mind.

7) Choose Your Battles

That’s what Roddenberry had to do every time he butted heads with TV executives. It’s what I do as an author when I disagree with my editor, and what I expect an author to do when I’m his or her editor. “I’ll say Starfleet pays its officers in credits if you let the white guy kiss the black girl.” Or whatever.

8) YOU Are The Writer

Remember when I said to listen to your readers? That doesn’t mean you have to always agree with them. When Gene Roddenberry’s vision put him at odds with the majority, he went with his vision. We should all do that. Such judgment calls are what separate the great writers from the merely ordinary. And to pull all that off within the confines of a 1960s TV show is nothing short of extraordinary. You could do far worse than to follow his example.

9) Posterity Matters

How long has it been since Captain Kirk first flexed those biceps and paused in funny places during his speechifying? It’s been maybe 45 years since Roddenberry started writing STAR TREK, and we’re still talking about it. That’s what we write for. I don’t want you to love my writing now and forget it tomorrow. A novel is not a blog or a tweet. Write something timeless. Something to annoy future generations the way it does your immediately family, something teachers can torture students with, something that just will not die.


An Honest Q&A Session About Writing and Editing

Q: Why did you start writing?
A: Why not?

Q: How many years do you have to write before you can quit your “day job”?
A: 42.

Q: Who’s your agent?
A: Huh?

Q: Who’s your publicist?
A: Huh?

Q: Who’s your editor?
A: Huh?

Q: How long does it take to write a book?
A: That depends on how good you make it.

Q: What’s the hardest thing about catching an editor’s eye?
A: Getting someone to throw it to you.

Q: How can I stop people from stealing my ideas?
A: Don’t worry, nobody wants them. Ideas are the easy part. You can do that in a day. Writing takes months. Maybe years. There are no new ideas.

Q: What do you call an author without a girlfriend?
A: Homeless.

Q: Where do you get your ideas from?
A: I steal them. Got a book for me to edit?

Q: What’s the difference between a PhD in English and a large pizza?
A: The pizza can feed a family of four.

Q: How much do you have to pay to get published?
A: Please, please, please don’t pay to get published. Readers pay publishers and publishers pay authors. Don’t believe anyone who tells you different.

Q: What’s the difference between an editor and God?
A: God doesn’t think he’s an editor.


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