You majored in in film and television production and screenwriting at NYU’s Tisch School of Arts. Does it mean you were always on the path to becoming a novelist, or were you more interested in production and screenwriting?
Ever since I was a young boy, I’ve loved reading. Starting when I was around nine or ten years old, I daydreamed of growing up to be a novelist. I became interested in screenwriting and filmmaking around the age of fifteen, and that led me to NYU’s film school.
After I graduated from college, I continued for several years to pursue my dream of writing for film and television. With a little help and some luck, I had a few early lucky breaks, first at Star Trek Voyager and then at Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
To my disappointment, those early successes did not lead to repeat sales, and after I reached the age of thirty, and co-wrote a Star Trek comic-book miniseries, I began to give serious thought to making a career shift toward prose fiction. Consequently, when an opportunity to make that transition presented itself to me in May 2000, I took it. That led me to write my first book, The Starfleet Survival Guide, a gig that altered the trajectory of my writing career.
What are the greatest differences between screenwriting and writing a novel? Which do you think is easier?
There are many differences. Novels are far longer (the average novel runs about 100,000 words vs. only about 15,000 for a feature-film screenplay and 7,500 words for an hour-length teleplay).
A screenplay is not a medium meant to be read as entertainment unto itself; it is a story blueprint for the making of a recorded entertainment, a road map for a widely collaborative art form.
Novels require far more attention to sensory detail; good integrated prose will mesh plot, action, dialogue, and character development with rich details that speak to all of the physical senses. A screenplay, by design, specifies only that which can be seen and heard.
Many novels rely on the practice of getting inside a character’s head—in other words, telling stories filtered through a subjective point of view. For the most part, film is an external medium, in which the audience sees what the camera “sees.” Except in some cases of voice-over narration, most films don’t give an audience access to their characters’ internal perspectives.
It is easier to withhold story details from a movie audience than from a novel reader because of this difference in the use of point-of-view. For instance, the movie Ronin works beautifully on-screen but would be hard to execute as a novel, because much of its tension and surprise relies upon the audience not knowing the true allegiance or agenda of the main character. Those are details that are hard to conceal in a novel when one tells a story from that character’s perspective. For that movie to be translated to a novel, one would have to tell it from the perspective of a different person, using them as the main character.
As for which type of story is easier to write? They are both exceptionally difficult, but for different reasons. Screenplays are austere, rigidly formatted, and must be compelling as well as concise. It’s like a strange kind of poetry that has arcane rules of indentation and capitalization.
Novels are long, complex, intricate beasts that can unravel based on a single mistake, plod to a dead halt over a mishandled story beat, or fail on the basis of their prose.
Scripts rely on strong plots and sharp dialogue. Both of those things are important to novels, as well — but writing a great novel also means being a good prose stylist, and having a command of language that enables one to immerse a reader seamlessly within a narrative.
Your first story sale was for Star Trek Voyager, if I remember correctly. Did you intend to write for Star Trek, or were there other shows at the time that you were interested in writing for? Did you try and submit stories for shows like Stargate SG-1, or others?
I had made a particular mission of writing for Star Trek on television, starting shortly after the producers of Star Trek: The Next Generation announced an “open” submission policy for spec scripts. I spent years submitting to TNG and striking out. Never broke in there. Then I continued my efforts at Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek Voyager.
My eventual breakthrough came as a result of teaming up with John J. Ordover, who at that time was one of the editors acquiring Star Trek novels for Pocket Books at Simon & Schuster. He had the ability to get pitch meetings, but no experience or training in scriptwriting. I had the training but no access. As a team, we had the right mix of advantages to get our feet in the door.
After our first sales to Star Trek, John tried to set us up with pitch meetings at other shows, but we never got anyone to so much as take our calls. We aspired at that time to pitch to shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, and others. We also wrote a few feature screenplays, a television pilot, and a bunch of comic-book series proposals, but those also all went nowhere.
During my time as the editor of the official website of the SCI FI Channel (before it became Syfy), I had hoped I might be able to get a pitch meeting at the “re-imagined” Battlestar Galactica, but by then serialized storytelling and shorter seasons had become the norm in Hollywood, all but ending the era of freelancer sales to ongoing television series.
You’ve written for a lot of different franchises, most notably Star Trek. Did you feel constrained by the canon of those franchises? Did you want do do some things with the storylines and characters that the publishers and editors vetoed?
I’ve never viewed any series’ canon as a constraint, nor have I understood writers who do. I’ve always found that writers who rail against “the constraints of canon” probably don’t really want to write for the show about which they’re complaining; they really want to write their own show which they think will be better, but they don’t have a show, so they’d rather reinvent someone else’s work.
In fact, I often have found that the better one knows the canon of a given series, the more dangling story threads and tantalizing unanswered dramatic questions one will find. Many great stories will hint at epic events that have gone before, or foreshadow that which might follow, even though many series never get to dramatize those ideas. For me, finding such possibilities living within a series’ canon is like finding a vein of gold in a mountainside.
Over the years, as I’ve written media tie-in novels for various franchises, I have rarely had any of my serious proposals rejected. There have been a few that didn’t suit the publishers’ needs at that time and which I subsequently filed away (in some cases, resurrecting them years later), and only one case in which the development process on a large project had to go through several false starts before it found its footing, and that was my Star Trek Destiny trilogy.
Your Star Trek Destiny trilogy was a great success. It explained the origin of the Borg and ended their threat as far as the novels’ shared continuity was concerned. Was it all your idea, or was it planned out and you just got to write the story?
For the most part, the story of the Star Trek Destiny trilogy was my brainchild. I developed it over a span of several months while working with editors Margaret Clark and Marco Palmieri, who had commissioned the project to coincide with what at the time had been expected to be the premiere date of J. J. Abrams’ first Star Trek feature film (which got delayed until May 2009).
Margaret and Marco had brought me aboard with only an illustration as inspiration. It was an image from a Star Trek: Ships of the Line calendar, a painting by Pierre Drolet of the warp-five starship NX-02 Columbia, crashed and broken in a desert, with a caption saying it had been discovered in the Gamma Quadrant, two centuries after its mysterious disappearance.
Marco and Margaret asked me if I could devise an “epic trilogy” starting from that image, one that would somehow involve all of the 24th-century incarnations of the franchise, as well as the Star Trek Enterprise era. Not being a fool, I said, “Of course I can.”
Fulfilling that boast proved harder than I had expected. My first several proposals for the trilogy idea were rejected, by one or both of the editors, for various reasons. Some were too similar to stories that Pocket had published in years past. Some were considered not “big” enough to warrant being the subject of a trilogy event. And so it went.
Eventually, I asked for a rundown of everything the publisher had planned for release in the Star Trek book line from that month until my trilogy’s scheduled publication date. Once I saw the schedule, a pattern emerged: they had bought a number of books that involved a renewed threat by the Borg.
“There’s your trilogy,” I told them. “You’ve let the 800-pound gorilla back out of its cage, and now we need to deal with it. Let’s make this the final showdown, the clash of civilizations: two enter, only one will survive. Worlds will burn, lives will be lost, we’ll see what the Federation is really made of when its back is to the wall, and we’ll see the origin and final fate of the Borg.” The next big sticking point was finding an ending for the story that felt true to Star Trek as well as to the trilogy itself. Once I figured that out, the Star Trek Destiny trilogy was born.
Except for the inclusion of a few canon characters, you created a whole new Star Trek series around your own characters: Star Trek Vanguard, set in the Original Series timeframe. Some plotlines from Vanguard (such as the Shedai meta-genome) became very important in the wider Star Trek literary continuity, in the post-finale stories of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and even Star Trek Voyager. Was that your idea, or something that the editors decided?
The most truthful answer to this multi-part question is, It’s complicated.
I co-created the Star Trek Vanguard saga with editor Marco Palmieri. He wanted to craft a series set in the era of The Original Series, but one with a more modern sensibility. He wanted to show that events that occurred on-screen in TOS had repercussions far beyond what we saw, and that events far from TOS set the stage for episodes of the series. He also wanted Vanguard to feature our heroes pursuing the truth behind an “ancient mystery” tied to an alien precursor civilization.
With that précis, and a few of the key character types, Marco engaged me to create the saga’s series bible, which fleshed out the main cast and supporting dramatis personae, as well as the overall story arc of the saga, some examples of how it might play out from one book to the next, and ideas for how to integrate our ancient mystery with known Star Trek cultures, such as the Klingons, Romulans, Gorn, Orions, and Tholians.
The connections between Star Trek Vanguard and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan had all been planned from the start, but the way in which those ideas—especially the Sheda meta-genome—carried forward into the wider Star Trek shared literary continuity happened entirely organically.
I and my co-authors on the Vanguard saga, Dayton Ward and Kevin Dilmore, also were hired to write several novels set in the post-Star Trek Nemesis, 24th-century continuity. When we were looking for ways to resolve certain story threads, we saw the possibilities inherent in weaving together our continuity from Vanguard with the later-era incarnations of Star Trek. The result is a shared continuity that feels like it has a consistently realized history of consequences spanning more than a century. The editors approved of our shenanigans, but the impetus for the interlinked continuity came entirely from the writers.
In the Star Trek shared literary continuity, how does coordination between writers and their storylines work? Is there a story editor that comes up with plots or does everyone pitch their ideas?
As with most questions pertaining to publishing, the most accurate answer is, “It depends.”
There has been no master “story editor” or “story group” for the Star Trek novels’ shared literary continuity. Since around 2001, when the novels began to organically develop shared continuity, it was an effort led by editor Marco Palmieri, who wanted to create a consistent, serialized narrative for the new post-finale novels he was editing for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
His approach to the fiction—treating it as a collaborative project, maintaining an ongoing continuity from one novel to the next, even with different authors—was one that appealed to many of us who were writing Star Trek novels at that time.
John Ordover adopted that approach with the Star Trek: TNG novels, and he and part-time editor (and full-time author) Keith R. A. DeCandido embraced it fully with the Star Trek: S.C.E. (Starfleet Corps of Engineers) eBook series that launched in 2001.
Much of the work related to tracking the continuity between books and authors has been borne by the authors themselves, but the editors—in particular, Margaret Clark and Marco Palmieri—were Atlas-like in their bearing of that burden during the early years.
These days, as the shared continuity gets ready to wind down, the few remaining stories that are being set within it are being carefully planned by authors and editors alike.
Another great expanded universe published at that time was that of the Star Wars novels. Did you ever want to play in that universe, or are you exclusively interested in Star Trek? (Yes, this is a poorly veiled Star Trek-or-Star Wars question.)
I’ve wanted to write a Star Wars novel for over a decade. I’ve told the editors and publisher of the Star Wars books many times of my interest. I’ve tweeted at them. I even know the woman who heads up their licensing team. None of it has mattered. They have never returned my calls or emails, and when my agent has reached out on my behalf, she has been politely rebuffed.
I mean, seriously: I’d love to write a Mandalorian novel, or something about a new rogue jedi.
Now all I need to do is persuade the-powers-that-be at Star Wars to let me.
Now that we have Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Picard, and more new Star Trek television series in the pipeline, does their new content irreparably contradict the books’ continuity? Or can the new TV and current literary continuities be merged in some way?
From my perspective, I see no way we can fully reconcile the shared literary continuity of officially licensed Star Trek fiction published from 2001 to 2020 with the continuities of the new television series being developed by Alex Kurtzman and his team.
The discrepancies will become only more pronounced in the years to come, as Star Trek presents new seasons of Star Trek: Picard and new animated series, including Star Trek: Lower Decks, and the untitled series being developed by Dan & Kevin Hageman, set in the 24th century.
That said, those of us who write the novels … have some ideas for how to address this.
Do you plan to submit stories or screenplays for any of the new Star Trek television series?
It doesn’t work that way, unfortunately. Back in the 1990s, when I was a young would-be freelance scriptwriter, most major TV series had seasons that were 22 or 26 episodes long, which meant they had both room in their schedule and an obligation under the Writers Guild of America rules to acquire stories and scripts from freelancers like me. That was part of how John and I got our lucky breaks at Star Trek Voyager and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
These days, most shows produced for streaming media or basic cable (i.e., anything other than the big-five major networks) have short seasons of roughly 13 or fewer episodes, and they are written entirely by an in-house writing staff. Shows like Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek: Picard don’t take any outside pitches. If you aren’t in the room, you’re out of luck.
My friend Kirsten Beyer suggested to the folks at Star Trek: Discovery that they ought to bring me aboard as a staff writer (I served as an unpaid, uncredited consultant offering script notes throughout season one), but they went another way.
Since then, I have been hired to work as a consultant on season one of Star Trek: Lower Decks, as well as on the still-untitled animated Star Trek series being run by brothers Dan and Kevin Hageman.
I continue to hold onto hope that I might yet realize my lifelong dream of being a staffed writer on a real Star Trek television series. But I won’t be holding my breath.
Your first non-franchise novel was The Calling, from 2009. Why did you take the plunge to write an original novel? Was it a need to tell a story outside of the franchises you worked for?
Pretty much, yes. I wanted to create something that was entirely my own, and that might have the potential of selling to television as a series concept. The Calling was optioned a couple of times, and came close to getting a pilot the second time around, but never quite got off the ground. I still think it could work, because it’s such a simple concept:
“A small-town handyman sometimes hears when other people pray for help. He doesn’t control it. He can’t explain it. All he knows is, if he hears someone’s prayer, he has to find them and figure out what to do next.” It’s contemporary, low-budget, and perfectly set up for both episodic morality plays and season-long arcs.
The Calling marked a sharp turn for you, genre-wise, from your previous science-fiction works, to one of urban fantasy. Why did you choose to move into a new genre?
Partly, it was to stretch myself as an author. I wanted to show that I had versatility, and I felt that writing more space-opera science fiction would only feel like more of my Star Trek work, but with the serial numbers filed off, as they say. By jumping into urban fantasy, I hoped to show that I had a range that extended beyond the bridge of the Enterprise.
You continued that trend with your Dark Arts trilogy, which blends contemporary history, dark urban fantasy, and varying literary styles, including a war epic and a high-velocity spy-thriller, to create a stunning story behind the scenes of World War II and the early decades of the Cold War. What were your inspirations for the Dark Arts series?
There were several, obviously, including World War II epics such as The Longest Day, Saving Private Ryan, and Band of Brothers, all of which inspired Dark Arts’ first book, The Midnight Front. The series second book, The Iron Codex, owes a debt to the spy-thrillers of Ian Fleming and John Le Carré, and the third book, The Shadow Commission, follows in the tradition of such conspiracy thrillers as Three Days of the Condor and Topaz.
The series overall was inspired by the 1968 James Blish novel Black Easter—specifically, its serious treatment of Renaissance-era ceremonial black magic. I read that book as a teen, and it has haunted me ever since. When I was preparing the Dark Arts series, I went back to the same primary source texts that Blish investigated when he wrote Black Easter, and then I took it in a more “cinematic” direction to make it fit better with the action-oriented storytelling I prefer.
Do you plan to continue writing urban fantasy novels, or will you try other genres? Horror? High fantasy? Or will you stick to science-fiction?
I’ll go where my imagination takes me. I’ve been tinkering with a science-fiction story idea for the past year or two, and I’m finally beginning to hammer it into shape. If my agent thinks it might be commercially viable, that will probably be my next big original project. Assuming we can find a publisher willing to put it out there.
Is modern media tie-in work as a novelist a replacement of sort for the old time “pulpy” adventure serials? Something meant for fun, and forgotten as soon as you read it, or is there a measure of art in it?
I think that depends entirely on the author, and, in some cases, the specific work. Not every writer harbors lofty literary aspirations (at least, some won’t admit to doing so). And not every tie-in project demands to be War and Peace.
I can’t speak to the aspirations or motivations of other writers, but I know that I’ve never settled in for the months-long agony of writing a novel just so it can be forgotten. Not on any of my Star Trek novels, not on any of my tie-in novels. I always put blood, sweat, and tears on the page.
When I write, I’m seeking something true about life, about the human experience, about my characters. Maybe I don’t always succeed as well as I hope to, but I’ve never striven for anything less than beauty and truth on the page, whether I was writing for a client or for myself.
I ask a question in all my interviews: How do we get young people to read more in this age of internet and streaming?
I have no idea. Just as I can’t figure out how to explain to the cruel why they should care about the sufferings of others, I don’t know how to explain to the incurious that they can enrich their lives by taking the time to immerse themselves in narratives of the written word.
And I can’t really blame them. We live in a culture dominated by visual media. Even great music has trouble finding an audience without a visual component to aid its marketing. For years, one of the highest praises that readers have been able to think of to wish upon an author is, “I hope they make your story/book into a movie/television series!”
Yeah, I wish that, too. Because television is where the money is.
Except, I guess, for Star Trek, what are your favourite SF and fantasy books, movies, and television series?
Some of my favorite recent speculative fiction in books: I love the Sandman Slim series by Richard Kadrey, the Repairman Jack novels by F. Paul Wilson, the Masquerade series by Seth Dickinson, and the Harp & Ring Sequence by Ilana C. Myer. I’ve also been devouring the Marc Dane spy thriller novels of James Swallow.
Movies…? Now it gets harder, because I’m a picky bastard.
I’ve enjoyed the Marvel Cinematic Universe as much as the next geek. Especially the spectacle of Avengers: Endgame. But my favorite genre film of the past several years was Mad Max: Fury Road. I also loved Blade Runner: 2049, Logan, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and Interstellar. And I’d be remiss if I failed to note the superb Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse.
Favorite genre TV series? Another difficult category to winnow down.
I’ve really liked Watchmen and His Dark Materials on HBO. Over on Netflix, I’ve enjoyed the first two seasons of Altered Carbon, comic-book adaptation The Umbrella Academy, the German time-travel series Dark, the Brazilian series 3%, and the Duffer Bros.’ nostalgia blast Stranger Things. Travelers and Russian Doll were also quite good. Amazon Prime got my attention with Man in the High Castle, as well as its adaptation of The Boys. And I think kudos are in order for everyone who had anything to do with The Mandalorian on Disney+.
In this time of self-isolation, pandemics, rioting … is being a part of the fandom, and staying in touch with your fans, different than it was before? It seems as if there now are fewer options to meet one’s fans at conventions, and no book signings…. Do you stay in touch with your fans online?
I maintain both a personal profile and an official author page on Facebook, and I spend far too much time on Twitter. Through those forums, I have some limited contact with my fans, but not very much, if I’m to be honest.
I’ve also taken part in some Zoom-based readings and virtual panels, and I am scheduled to participate in a few more over the summer. For me, that’s enough.
Any final thoughts?
I hope not. I consider “final thoughts” to be what go through one’s brain just before death. In my case, I imagine it’ll be some variation of, “I was really hoping to avoid this….”
davidmack.pro | Twitter: @DavidAlanMack | facebook.com/TheDavidMack
A Sci-Fi and Fantasy fan, gamer (computer, tabletop, pen and paper) and dad from Zagreb, Croatia.
Love doing interviews, reading and cooking.