Speaking of questions and answers, one of TVWriter™’s writing heroes, J. Michael Straczynski (BABYLON 5, JEREMIAH, SENSE8, etc.), recently answered a few questions over at Slashdot.Org.
Do you frequently brush up on physics or cosmology or some scientific field to keep your forward looking ideas sharp and in-line with current academic trends or do you simply rely on your imagination? Any academic journals you subscribe to looking for something to stimulate you into envisioning a future with an interesting twist? Is this common in the writing community or do I have the wrong image in my head?
jms: With the proviso that no two writers work in the same way…I don’t tend to research academic works to find ideas. Some do, some can handle that sort of reading, but it sends me either to sleep or to the asylum. So I kind of work ass-backwards. I’m a bit of a generalist, I read all over the place, popular sources mainly, news stories, obscure little histories, and at some point something will catch my eye. It can be just a one-line reference, an aside, and I’ll think, well that deserves closer scrutiny. Then I’ll start to do my primary research. I have enough of an academic background to know where to go for what I need…I know just enough to get myself in trouble on a wide range of subjects… and gradually summon forth the facts I need to support (or challenge) the story I’m developing. I’ll rabbit-trail a lot, and dead end more times than not, but even a dead-end can lead you to an associated idea that can become the underpinnings of a story.
Writers accrete stories the way a sweater accretes lint: you go about your life, little things stick to you as you go, then one day you brush downward…and there’s a story.
Online presence: positive or negative?
You were one of the first Hollywood writers with an online presence, hanging out in newsgroups during production of Babylon 5. My memories of that were tidbits and insights from you, along with frequent “no story submissions” reminders and threats of your departure if the story ideas didn’t stop. How do you remember that experience? Was it worth the hassle? And do you view the seeming explosion of writers, directors, producers and actors on social media as a positive or negative for the industry overall?
jms: Back then, in the internet’s Early Cretaceous Period, the writers and producers I knew were appalled that I was on the net. They didn’t see the point, and besides, people had a tendency to yell at you. Now, clearly, that has changed, but yeah, I was one of the first to have a consistent online presence. There was much good and some bad involved in that. The net has a way of equalizing dialogue in ways that run counter-intuitive to our powers of perception. They’re just words on a screen, one subset of words no more valid than the other…even though one may be written by an expert, and the other by a guy who wears an orange fright wig and lives in his mother’s basement where he tortures Barbie dolls for fun. Seeing one or the other, you would know to let one close and the other not so much (unless you had strong anti-Barbie tendencies). But absent being able to see them, you don’t know what you’re dealing with and tend to apply equal credibility until the day the monster bares its teeth. So I had to learn that lesson the hard way.
There were the usual stalkers, nutjobs, feebs, freaks, whackos, bozos, yoyos and yipyops that we still have to deal with today, but now we all kind of know the rules better than we did back then. Despite that, the online presence accomplished what I set out to achieve: to de-mystify television production in the hope of educating people about the process, on the theory that we can never get the television programming we want unless we understand how the system works.
And I still have to be fairly ruthless in enforcing the no-story-ideas thing, because it’s just too dangerous to do otherwise. Marion Zimmer Bradley had to abandon one of her books because a fanfic writer thought it was based on that work, I almost scuttled one of my own scripts after someone posted a similar idea online and I was afraid I might get sued, and others have had similar experiences. People think “well, it’s just me, why can’t you read my idea/story/script, why are you being such a dick about it?” Because it’s not “just you,” it’s the ten thousand other guys standing behind you asking the same thing, many of whom are prepared to launch lawyers if I ever do a story similar to that in future. Ain’t worth it.