Kelly Jo Brick: The Write Path With Marc Zicree, Part 2

A series of interviews with hard-working writers – by another hard-working writer!

by Kelly Jo Brick

EDITOR’S NOTE: Part 1 is HERE

Aspiring writers often wonder how the pros got where they are. The truth is, everyone’s story is different, but there are some common elements: dedication, persistence, hard work and not giving up.

From animation to science fiction, Marc Zicree has written hundreds of hours of TV for shows including SMURFS, SUPER FRIENDS, SLIDERS, STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION and BABYLON 5. His drive and desire to learn from the writers he most admired helped Marc develop his career in television. Currently, he is writing, directing and producing SPACE COMMAND, a series of science fiction features starring Doug Jones, Armin Shimerman and Mira Furlan.

WHAT IS THE BEST ADVICE YOU RECEIVED AS YOU WERE STARTING OUT?

When I was growing up, the three shows that made me want to be a writer were the original STAR TREK, the original TWILIGHT ZONE and the original OUTER LIMITS. My heroes weren’t the actors, they were the writers: Richard Matheson and Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, D.C. Fontana, Charles Beaumont, George Clayton Johnson, Rod Serling and Ray Bradbury. As soon as I was old enough, I started going to science fiction conventions and meeting a lot of these writers.

They became mentors, many of them. So the thing I think served me the best was recognizing who are the best people doing the work I wanted to do and then learning from them directly and learning from what they were doing. Really studying how they did these things. Reading their scripts, talking with them, finding out what the ins and outs were of both the art and the craft and the business too, because you need all three to have a career.

WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR WRITERS TAKING THEIR FIRST MEETINGS?

Be present. Many, many meetings you’re so in your head and you’re so thinking about the past, the future, you’re not present. There are many pitches I took as a producer where I would ask a question and the person would answer a different question because they weren’t present. So be present. Be friendly.

Be warm, be genuine. Authenticity is very important. Don’t flake. You’d be amazed at how many people flake. All you have to do is do what you say you’re going to do when you say you’re going to do it.

AND ONCE YOU GET ON A TV STAFF?

Have a work ethic. Work hard. I know some people who have done very well because when they got on staff they were the first person at the office and the last person to leave and that was noticed.

Be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Be pleasant. Be positive. Be upbeat. Don’t complain. Don’t gossip. It’s pretty obvious stuff, but you’d be surprised by how many people fall into negativity, complaining, all that stuff.

ON GROWING YOUR CAREER ONCE YOU GET IN THE DOOR.

It’s not an easy road. You want things to go smoothly, but they don’t. People ask me how I broke into television and it’s more like a burglar working a neighborhood. It’s always about reinvention and I’ve always been extremely ambitious. My goal from when I was 10, 11, 12, 13 years old was to create and run my own science fiction series and now that’s what I’m doing with SPACE COMMAND.

You have to break in and break in and break in. It’s an ongoing process and I’m still doing that even now. You have to be endlessly inventive. You have to be driven and enthusiastic and surround yourself with people who will believe in you even when you falter.

WHAT’S THE MOST COMMON QUESTION YOU GET FROM ASPIRING WRITERS?

Often people want to know how to break in and what I say with that is right now the best way is to apply to the writing fellowships. The real question is how can people know you’re a good writer without reading you. Everyone hates to read and there’s not enough time in the day to read everybody’s scripts and so if it’s like, well, I’ve won this ABC Fellowship or I was in this Sundance Screenplay Lab or any of these things, then it’s like, well, OK, let’s check out this person’s writing.

Also with a lot of these studio and network writing fellowships, they’ll give you money and they’ll give you a career. So that’s one way, but the main thing is to not expect some agent is going to take you on board, wave a magic wand and make it happen.

You have to figure out how to kick the door down, how to get attention. It might be making a web series; it might be doing an indie film that wins at a festival. It might be writing a spec script that you get to some actor and he starts blogging and tweeting about it because he loves it and he has several million fans. It’s anything that’s going to get you attention. It always starts with the work.

THE IMPORTANCE OF FEEDBACK.

What I would urge writers to do is first of all, write well. Get feedback from professionals. Make sure that you’re getting feedback because most scripts aren’t strong enough. They’re not well written enough. Write and write and write and get feedback.

Ray Bradbury told me he wrote every day for 10 years before he wrote a single word that he thought was worth anything. So don’t just assume that because you’re working hard that you’re accomplishing what you’re setting out to do. Writing is a two way street. It’s what you intend to say and what the audience perceives, so you have to make sure what you intend to say is what they’re getting.

HOW CROWDFUNDING HAS BEEN A GAMECHANGER.

There are two things that really sabotage writers. It shouldn’t be this way and the other is, it used to be like this. It used to work, why doesn’t it work now? Those two things you have to totally let go of. Say to yourself, what’s the problem? What are some actions I can take? One of my bosses, it was Richard Manning, an executive producer on STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, he said, “Sometimes it doesn’t matter which direction you choose as long as you choose a direction and march.” I believe in that. So you say, okay, let’s take an action, if that doesn’t work we take another action. If the old things don’t work, try something new.

I mentor a lot of people through my roundtable and through classes that I teach. I started hearing about Kickstarter and Indiegogo. So I looked into them and saw that things were getting financed and because it frustrated me that executives at the studios and the networks were gatekeepers, I turned toward crowdfunding. I thought let’s try something else. Let’s see if I can raise money on Kickstarter and then I sold investment shares. With that I was able to shoot the first SPACE COMMAND movie.

It’s inventing an entirely new way of doing things. I love the new methods, the new modalities because I can utilize them and don’t have to ask permission. The lovely part is that I wrote the script exactly the way I wanted to write it. I cast all the actors I wanted to cast. I shot it exactly the way I wanted to shoot it. I didn’t have to ask anybody’s permission and if I’d gone to the network with the cast that I wanted to cast, I probably couldn’t have gotten most of these people, because the networks wouldn’t have wanted them.


Kelly Jo Brick is a TVWriter™ Contributing Editor. She’s a television and documentary writer and producer, as well as a winner of Scriptapalooza TV and a Sundance Fellow. Read more about her HERE.

Kelly Jo Brick: The Write Path With Marc Zicree, Part 1

A series of interviews with hard-working writers – by another hard-working writer!

by Kelly Jo Brick

Aspiring writers often wonder how the pros got where they are. The truth is, everyone’s story is different, but there are some common elements: dedication, persistence, hard work and not giving up.

Drive, focus and a desire to learn from those he admired led Marc Zicree on a journey that took him from animation to sci-fi and writing hundreds of hours of television for shows including STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, SLIDERS, BABYLON 5, HE-MAN and SMURFS. He’s also a TWILIGHT ZONE expert, writing The Twilight Zone Companion and is a bestselling novelist. He and his wife, Elaine, run The Table, a weekly gathering where they dedicate themselves to supporting and mentoring other industry professionals. He currently is writing, directing and producing the science fiction feature SPACE COMMAND starring Doug Jones, Armin Shimerman and Mira Furlan.

HOW AND WHEN DID YOU FIRST KNOW YOU WANTED TO BE A WRITER?

I started reading science fiction when I was very, very small. The first favorite book I remember was Farmer in the Sky by Robert Heinlein when I was seven. I heard Ray Bradbury speak at a library when I was ten and I think that might have really planted the seed because at that talk Ray said, “Ideally your life and your work and your art should all come from the same place.” So that was very important to me.

STAR TREK debuted when I was around ten and really was it for me. I got to go on the set and watch them shoot the final episode, “Turnabout Intruder.” Then I read The Making of Star Trek when I was thirteen. That was the first book on how TV shows were made. I think that’s where I really started to think I wanted to be a writer/producer working in television.

WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST JOB IN ENTERAINMENT?

The first short story I sold was when I was 19. I went to the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, which was the leading science fiction writing workshop in the country. It was put on at Michigan State University during the summer. Twenty-five students would live in the dorms and each week a famous science fiction writer would come and live with you.

We’d write like crazy and critique each other. It was a real pressure cooker. Two of the students from that year became major writers, Robert Crais, who became a mystery writer and Kim Stanley Robinson, who became a top science fiction writer.

The six science fiction writers brought in were Joe Haldeman, Samuel R. Delany, Roger Zelazny, Kate Wilhelm, Damon Knight and Gene Wolfe. They were all very famous science fiction writers at that point.

Damon was editing an anthology and he said to us, “If you’ve got a story in your trunk that you brought with you, I’d like to read it.” So I had written a satire in the first English class I took at UCLA. That’s just when the President had given a talk at Disney World and I had this idea that if they swapped him out with the robot President they had there in the Hall of Presidents, Disney would be running the country. I was paid $50 for that short story.

WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST JOB WRITING FOR TELEVISION?

Theodore Sturgeon, who was a very famous science fiction writer who had written for STAR TREK, taught an adult education class at UCLA and even though as an undergrad I was forbidden from taking adult education, I said well, screw that, I’m not going to miss this opportunity. He was one of my heroes. I took that class and he became one of my mentors and his teaching assistant was a young writer named Michael Reaves. Michael and I became friends.

Michael was writing animation and I had never really particularly wanted to write animation, but I wanted to get into television. Michael asked me if I’d like to write an animation script with him. He had already broken into television. He was writing all of the episodes of an animated series on NBC called SPACE STARS which starred Space Ghost and so I wrote an episode with him and it went well and then SMURFS was just starting up, so I wrote an episode of SMURFS with Michael. Then it was very clear I could write these on my own. So I started writing for SMURFS and HE-MAN and SUPER FRIENDS.

HOW DID YOU TRANSITION FROM ANIMATION TO LIVE ACTION?

I knew that I’d have to create a sample. An animation script would not serve me to get hired in live action, so I could earn enough in 3 months to make about $100,000 and that was enough for me to live on for a year. I told all my animation bosses that as of a certain date I would not be available to write on assignment, because I would be writing my live action spec. They said, fine, fine, fine. Of course that day came and they started offering me jobs and in two days I had to turn down $200,000 worth of work, which ruins your writing day.

I went to UCLA where they couldn’t reach me, because this was before cell phones and I would write all day and then call in for my messages. I wrote a spec live action feature called PIECE OF CAKE and that sold, although it never got made. Then that was a writing sample that NBC read. They liked it and hired me to write a pilot for a TV series based on Choose Your Own Adventure, which was a very successful series of books. They sent me to Thailand to research it and then we went to Thailand to shoot it and it aired. I was off and running, so then after that I got hired to story edit FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE SERIES.

WHAT WAS YOUR FAVORITE SHOW TO WORK ON?

I really liked writing SLIDERS because we were tasked with reinventing the show after Fox drove it into the ground and SYFY picked it up for a fourth season. It was very fun to take something that had a great concept and design a season where it would deliver on that concept. So I wrote an episode called “World Killer” that really demonstrated what I thought the show could be and it came out very, very well. I was really pleased with it.

Part 2, in which Marc Zicree shares advice on taking meetings, getting on a writing staff and how crowdfunding can allow you to take control of your career, is HERE. Squee!


Kelly Jo Brick is a TVWriter™ Contributing Editor. She’s a television and documentary writer and producer, as well as a winner of Scriptapalooza TV and a Sundance Fellow. Read more about her HERE.

J. Michael Straczynski Television Q & A

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.

JMSby samzenpus

Last week you had the chance to ask J. Michael Straczynski (jms) about Babylon 5, his new original series, Sense8 , and all things sci-fi. Below you’ll find his answers to your questions.

Academic Chops?
by eldavojohn

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?
by bobdehnhardt

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.

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