Home > My Fiction, Star Trek > Origin story 2: The long road to publication

Origin story 2: The long road to publication

In my Origin story post, once I got to the point where I decided to become a writer, I focused mainly on my worldbuilding and the development of my “Default” universe.  But what about the actual writing projects I attempted?

Well, in looking back on those years, it seems I took quite a while to get past the “I wanna be a writer when I grow up” stage to the actual story-writing stage.  Aside from some crude comic strips I drew and the occasional class assignment, the earliest writing projects I can recall doing are a couple of pieces of Star Trek fanfiction.  For some reason, I never really got heavily into fanfic writing, but I did do a couple.  The first was “A Peculiar Variety of Diplomacy” (a line of Spock’s from “A Taste of Armageddon”), which was an “I, Mudd”-like comedy story in which Kirk’s crew discovers that a species applying for UFP membership is more trouble than it’s worth, and they end up pulling a “Wise Men of Gotham” gambit and acting silly to convince the aliens that the UFP is too crazy for them to join.  It climaxed, I kid you not, with the bridge crew singing “The Lullaby of Broadway.”  As for the second fanfic I wrote, the title says it all: “Mudd’s Tribbles.”  I also dabbled with various Trek novel ideas, none of which ever went anywhere — except that my dabbling included some early thoughts about the character arcs that followed Star Trek: The Motion Picture, so maybe that could count as the beginning of the process that led to Ex Machina.

This stuff was done mostly in study hall in high school.  There was one term when I had something like three hours of study hall in a row, so I had plenty of time for writing and thinking.  I recall doing some original fiction too, like a dialogue between American and Soviet defense computers that simultaneously gain sentience and mutually decide to use their respective nuclear arsenals to destroy humanity.   (That’s the second time I’ve mentioned using that idea, but lest you think I was preoccupied with it, I should point out that it was already a pretty prevalent meme at the time, combining cultural fears of both nuclear war and technology subjugating humanity.  Skynet was a latecomer.  I probably got the idea from the “Doomsday is Tomorrow” episode of The Bionic Woman, in which a HAL-like computer plans to set off a doomsday device.  That, in turn, was probably influenced by Colossus: The Forbin Project.  And I was not yet near the point of coming up with anything that wasn’t derivative.)

In my junior year, I wrote a spec script for the annual junior-class play.  My submission was a sci-fi comedy called How to Save a Planet in Six Easy Steps.  It featured a scientist named Dr. Livingston I. Presume.  My submission got me invited to join the team of writers developing the play, and I got my first taste of collaboration.  I gave one of the other writers some scenes that he was supposed to incorporate into the script, and was outraged when he rewrote them without permission or consultation, and without much talent either.  One of my characters was changed into a crude, offensive gay stereotype, something I would never have approved.  I felt violated that my words had been changed without my consent or participation, and I resigned from the project and asked them to take my name off what I now recognized would be a tasteless travesty (they didn’t).  In retrospect, I have to wonder why I was expecting anything else from a play written by teenagers.  But it gave me sympathy for the writers who work in TV and movies.  Admittedly, my own ego and inexperience at working with other writers were factors as well, but I don’t regret my decision to leave the project (except that there was this one cute girl involved who’d flirted with me once three years before, and I’d been hoping for a chance to get to know her better).

The first story I ever wrote with the intent of actually submitting it was done near the end of my first year in college.  It was a Twilight Zone-ish piece inspired by a real event.  I was on the bus one day and a man and a woman got on.  They were wearing matching t-shirts in a sickly purplish color.  His said “I LOVE [JANE]” and hers said “I LOVE [BOB]” (names forgotten to protect the innocent).  But they just sat there, totally affectless, not talking, not touching, not even looking at each other.  If not for the t-shirts, I would’ve thought them total strangers to one another.  I found that sad and disturbing — and creatively inspiring.  The story began with that event, and then went on from my first-person POV as a plague of these t-shirts — and the commensurate zombie-like attitude — spread inexplicably through the city.  Now, I was 18 or 19 at the time, so I included the girl I had a crush on as a character, and there was a scene where she ended up in one of the t-shirts and — strictly for her own good, you understand — I attempted to free her from its spell by removing it.  It didn’t work, and neither did the old Sleeping Beauty trick (though folklore is mute on whether Prince Charming reached second base).  I didn’t save the girl and there wasn’t a happy ending.  I don’t remember what the ending was.  Embarrassed with the story, I discarded all copies.  (There was no happy ending with the girl in real life either.)

I began writing stories in my Default-verse around 1991, I think, and began submitting them about two years later.  I was very slow getting started, much slower than I should’ve been.  I don’t want to talk about these ideas in any detail, because you never know when something from an old, failed story might find new life.  I thought these stories were pretty good at the time, but when I looked back on them later with more experience, I realized they were very lacking in concepts and characterization.  The prose was competent, but the stories had little depth and the SF ideas weren’t all that interesting.

But actually submitting stories and getting them rejected was invaluable.  I can’t stress this enough to the aspiring writer.  I had to know my work wasn’t good enough before I could begin striving to improve.  And once I got good enough that the editors were willing to invest the effort in sending personal rejection letters instead of form letters, I started getting specific advice on what my work was missing and what it needed, and that helped a lot too.

I also worked on a few spec novels in those years.  My first was inspired by the end titles of the Star Wars spoof film Hardware Wars, which contained the line “Filmed on location in space.”  It was also influenced by the production of the film Fitzcarraldo.  On Location was about a filmmaker who, tired of all the computer-animated fakery in the films of the 2020s, arranges to bring a film crew along on a colony expedition to Mars and make the world’s first space movie shot entirely on location.  Now, I never liked the fake way in which film production was usually portrayed in movies and TV.  I wanted it to be coherent and authentic.  So before I wrote the novel, I wrote the screenplay to the movie within the novel.  Then I worked out its production requirements and shooting schedule, and then I plotted and wrote the novel around that.  For a first spec novel, it was very ambitious, and it took me a couple of years to do it.  I just now rummaged through my old notes and saw that I was planning this as early as 1990, before I actually began writing stories in this universe.  That’s always been my problem — getting from the planning stage to the writing stage.

A few years back, I revisited those old, unsold manuscripts, and though I felt the novel held up moderately well for an early effort, the screenplay was actually quite boring.   I really raised my game a lot between the screenplay and the novel.

I’m pretty proud of the design I did for the Mars colony ship, the Ray Bradbury.  Here it is:

The forward/upper cones of the landing modules double as surface-to-orbit shuttles.  The heat shield is an unfolding structure shown retracted against the hull.  The gym is a concept I cribbed from Arthur C. Clarke’s Imperial Earth; crewmembers ride bicycles around the inner rim of the drum-shaped chamber to generate centrifugal weight and resistance.

I wrote two other spec novels in those early years.  One was the prototype for a character I’m still using today (literally — she’s featured in the story I’m currently writing).  It’s kind of a hard-SF superhero premise.  My original idea was more of a genetically/bionically enhanced secret agent, maybe someone darker and more violent than most of my characters, but I quickly realized I couldn’t identify with a willing killer.  Anyway, I wrote a spec novel about her, and then I rewrote it many, many times over the years rather than, you know, trying to find an agent or anything.  But I built up this whole elaborate plan for sequels and a comic-book series and… well, after the dozenth or so rewrite, I finally decided that I needed to start over from scratch.  My current spec novel involving the character is a plot distilled from the high points of that whole saga I’d worked out before.

The other spec novel I wrote was Daughter of Earth and Water, which was the basis for my most recent published novel, Star Trek Titan: Over a Torrent Sea.   It was about an expedition to a water world orbiting Tau Ceti — just a planet with no continents and a bunch of islands, originally called Archipel.  The first draft was strong on the worldbuilding and weak on the characters.  I later went back and punched up the character stuff.  Then I decided I wanted something more exotic for the planet, and I tried to think up a way to have a world that was made almost entirely of water (this was inspired by the Voyager episode “Thirty Days” and its artificially created ocean in space; I wanted a natural equivalent).  I tried to come up with something involving a quark-star core that had somehow accreted water around it after crashing through a Neptune-type planet.  I was never confident enough in the physics of the situation to go with it.  Also, the story made rather a big deal out of the heroine’s transformation into a “merwoman” midway through the novel (a transformation proposed in OaTS but not followed through upon).  Once I began to realize that transhumanism was catching on in SF and that such transformations would be more commonplace in that era, I dabbled in reworking the plot.  But it remained shelved until I hit upon adapting it for Titan, and using the “Ocean Planet” concept that astrophysicists had proposed a few years earlier.  (This is discussed more in my annotations for OaTS.)

I did a bunch of other stories in this time, including a series about humanity’s first alien contact and the interactions that follow, with an eye toward combining them into a novel eventually.  But nothing ever sold until “Aggravated Vehicular Genocide” and later “Among the Wild Cybers of Cybele.”  And after that, nothing else sold until I started writing Trek fiction.  That’s pretty typical for a writer’s journey.  It’s said that your first million words are just practice.  It usually takes a long time and a lot of rejections before you get good enough to sell.  And even once you make your first sale, it doesn’t mean the rejections will end.  I probably wrote more than a million before I sold, counting all the alternate drafts of things.  I spent too much time rethinking old concepts rather than just submitting them and moving on to the next thing.  That’s another valuable lesson for aspiring writers.  As a rule, once you’ve finished a story and started marketing it, you don’t rewrite it unless an editor asks you to — you move onto the next thing instead.  I had too much trouble letting go of an old idea.  And with the spec novels, I never even got around to submitting them anywhere, just kept trying to rework them to the point where I thought they were good enough.  I hadn’t yet learned the saying, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”

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  1. Jason
    December 5, 2009 at 11:03 am

    Thanks for the detailed history of your writing efforts. It means a lot (as an aspiring writer) to be able to take a look at the progression of someone who has published as much as you have in the last couple of years.

    I look forward to reading your Analog story.

    Jason Barney

  2. Psion
    December 5, 2009 at 2:13 pm

    Nice place you have here, Mister Bennett.

    And like Jason, I enjoy the insight into your past. I also like to think of myself as a writer in training. Back in my twenties I was lucky enough to have found a publisher who published my earliest work, but since then I’ve become my own greatest critic and my hard drives are littered with works started, but never finished. Someday, I tell myself, I’ll get back out there.

    Also, let me praise Ex Machina one more time. It’s one of my favorite Trek novels and one of the few I consider worth reading in a broader SF literature sense.

  3. Jason
    December 6, 2009 at 9:11 am

    Christopher,

    Is there any chance you could elaborate on the the early 90s a little bit more? I know in your Origin Story 2 post you said you didn’t want to get into too much detail because past ideas might very well breathe again. If you don’t mind, I’d be very interested on the specifics of the time you spent editing those first stories, how many you sent out, how often you sent them out, as you were starting out how much did you write per day, that sorta thing. Based on what you have written this is the point where many of us are in our own writing careers, and- if you possible-it would be great to hear you reflect on the write, write, write,mail,mail,mail period of your career. If you’d prefer not to, I do understand.

    • December 6, 2009 at 10:32 am

      My experiences there wouldn’t really be a good example except of what not to do. As I said, I tended to focus too much on reworking existing stories rather than moving on and writing as many new stories as possible. And I didn’t submit stories nearly as frequently as I should have, partly because of the effort and expense of printing out stories and paying for postage and all that. (Every printer I’ve ever had seems to be part of a vast conspiracy to drive me insane. They all hate me, I tell ya.) And I was too fixated on the top-paying magazines. Once I’d failed to sell a story to all the magazines that paid pro rates, I just gave up on it. It’s good to start with those, of course, but once you’ve exhausted them, you shouldn’t be afraid to submit to lower-paying markets. Even if you don’t get as much money, it’s still getting published, getting your name out there, and that can be more important in the long run. That’s a lesson I’m afraid I never quite figured out until very recently.

      Although part of my problem was that my stories tended to end up pretty long, between 10,000 and 15,000 words and sometimes more, and there really aren’t many markets for stories in that length. It’s best to try to keep your short fiction under 10K, even under 7500, if you want to have as many markets as possible to submit to.

  1. December 13, 2009 at 10:36 pm
  2. March 27, 2010 at 9:23 am

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