Throwback Interview: David Alan Mack (2006)

Several years ago, I engaged in a series of interviews with various authors in which I asked them ten questions about the craft, their work, and advice for new writers. Appropriately dubbed “The Ten”, I am reposting those interviews here for archival purposes. 

David Alan Mack is the fan-favorite author of several Star Trek novels, including A Time to Heal, A Time to Kill, Star Trek: Vanguard – Harbinger, and the upcoming Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Warpath. He has also written for television, comics, video games, and even an independent short film (which he directed as well). David Mack was kind enough to set aside some time to take The Ten.


Q: How did you break into writing?

A: I didn’t so much “break in” as I snuck in. I’ve been writing pretty much my entire life, ever since I was old enough to string sentences together. I decided when I was still fairly young that what I wanted most in life was to write novels — to hold a book and see my name on the cover and know that it was my work, my words on the pages.

When I was still in junior high school, I wrote short fiction for fun and shared it with a couple of other friends who also wanted to be writers. In high school, my freshman-year English teacher, Ken Beals, encouraged me to follow up on my interest in submitting ideas and scripts to a Canadian-produced kids’ TV show called You Can’t Do That on Television. After being coached on how to write in TV script format, during a long-distance phone call to Toronto with executive producer Roger Price, I sent in a few batches of skits and gags, none of which were accepted. But my dedication, even in the face of rejection, convinced my mom that I was serious, and she helped me get admitted to a community college screenwriting program in the evenings, during my sophomore year of high school.

My success in that class led me to enroll in NYU Film School; while there, I became an editor and writer for the college’s humor magazine, The Plague. After graduating from film school, I realized that the closest thing I had to real job skills were the product of my training in magazine editorial work. So I took a series of pathetically low-paying magazine-editorial jobs over the next few years, and I wrote a lot of freelance articles on all kinds of subjects: Military small arms. Helicopters. Computer software. Crime. Sports. Whatever someone was willing to pay me to write.

At the same time, I was taking full advantage of the “open door” script policy at Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine — and getting exactly nowhere. Then, one day, my college buddy Glenn Hauman introduced me to John Ordover, who at that time was an editor in the Star Trek Books office. I had magazine-writing contacts that John was interested in exploiting, and John had access to the Star Trek TV producers, which we both wanted to take advantage of. So we teamed up.

We had some good luck and made a couple sales to Deep Space Nine and Voyager in 1995. Then, as it became apparent that our good luck wasn’t going to be easily duplicated, I began taking various editorial odd jobs in the Star Trek Books office — reading slush manuscripts, writing reference materials, etc. Meanwhile, John and I hacked out several spec screenplays that died on the vine for lack of Hollywood interest, and I got more and more work on Star Trek-related projects. Most of these were of the reference variety, such as the early version of the Star Trek: New Frontier Minipedia.

My breakthrough moment came when I was asked to write up the “Genesis Report” as a supplement for John Vornholt’s hardcover novel, The Genesis Wave, Book One. Based on the strength of my work on that assignment, I was offered a chance to write my own book, The Starfleet Survival Guide, in 2000. I accepted the gig, and once it was done I was firmly on the path toward writing Star Trek fiction — first for S.C.E., then for the other series as I graduated from eBooks to paperbacks.

Q: Were you active in the Star Trek (or other) fan-fiction scene before going pro?

A: No. I’ve never been interested in fan fiction, to be honest. I’ve never written it, and I’ve never really read any of it. I’ve heard from some people I trust that some fanfic is actually pretty good and that some is hilariously bad. But, of course, to me such opinions are only hearsay, because I have no firsthand knowledge of the subject.

Q: What have you written outside the realm of Star Trek?

A: My body of work as a reporter and columnist is extensive and spans more than a decade of my life and more than a dozen periodicals. When it comes to fiction, however, my bibliography is currently all Star Trek.

However, I’m happy to report that I am now embarking on my first non-Star Trek novel, a Wolverine book that, at this time, is still stubbornly untitled.

Q: Describe your writing process. Are there any particular methods you use (such as outlining) or tools (such as Dramatica)?

A: Outlining is mandatory when writing books for a media tie-in property, such as Star Trek or Wolverine. Narrative ideas and structures need to be worked out in an outline at the beginning of the process, so that the editor and the licensor (i.e., Paramount Pictures for Star Trek, or Marvel Comics for Wolverine) can offer feedback and guidance to the author. Only after the outline is approved by all parties can the author start work on the manuscript.

Sometimes, when I am outlining a story, I work longhand in a notebook to keep myself focused; this is because my hand cramps up easily, so working longhand forces me to keep my notes concise and precise, rather than digressing into details that, although they can add texture, can derail my attempt to move the narrative ahead. I often embellish and add detail to the outline when I type it up for submission to my editor, who, in turn, forwards it to the licensor for notes and approval.

Once the outline is approved, it all comes down to blocking out a few hours every night to work, setting word-count quotas that will enable me to meet my deadline, and keeping my internal bullshit-detector set to maximum. (It’s not infallible, I admit, but it’s fairly shock-proof and catches most of my stupider would-be mistakes before the manuscript goes to my editor.)

My usual nightly word-count quota is roughly 1,000 words, but that varies based on how long I have to work and what other projects I have waiting in the wings. Because of the fact that I have a full-time day job and a wife who I like to spend some time with when we’re both awake, I often don’t get started writing each night until 10 p.m. Typically, I work until about 2 a.m. Then I get up the next morning, go back to work, and start the process over.

And, in case you’re wondering: Yes, I am very, very tired.

Q: Looking at Harbinger, were there any particular plot or character moments that were cut from the novel that you really wish you could have kept?

A: Not really, though there were some I wish I had thought to add. Because of the deadline I had to meet on Harbinger, I simply did not have time to explore all the characters in as much detail as I would have liked.

On the other hand, several character-related issues were deliberately left open-ended, in order to provoke debate and discussion among the readers, and to allow future authors in the series greater lattitude in their storytelling. By not setting every character’s motivations in stone, I gave Dayton Ward and Kevin Dilmore the freedom to explore these characters and put their own spin on the relationships of the Vanguard saga in Summon the Thunder.

Q: How nervous are you regarding the reception your next novel, Warpath, will receive, considering it will be the first DS9 post-finale novel in more than a year and will continue on from a certain cliffhanger?

A: I knew going into Warpath that many readers have lofty expectations for the continuing literary saga of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and that David R. George III’s brutal cliffhanger in Olympus Descending is a tough act to follow. In a sense, I felt almost like this was Karmic payback for the mayhem I unleashed and which other authors had to clean up after  in such novels as Star Trek: S.C.E.  Wildfire and the TNG duology A Time to Kill and A Time to Heal.

Fortunately, the intensity of the setup I was given for Warpath played to my strengths as a writer, and with editor Marco Palmieri’s guidance I was able to compose a story that I felt was action-packed, emotionally powerful, and honest. Despite Warpath‘s outer appearance as a fast-paced action thriller, at its heart it’s really about the need for forgiveness, for redemption, for existential meaning in an ostensibly chaotic and arbitrary universe.

I’m hoping that Warpath will be received by the fans as one of my best works to date. I am very proud of the book, and it was a joy to write.

Q: Outside of Warpath, are there any new writing projects you would be able to discuss?

A: Oddly enough, despite the fact that I have several projects set to go forward in 2006, the only one that I can talk about right now is one that I’ve already mentioned, the Wolverine book. Furthermore, I have to be circumspect about that one because, as of this writing, its outline has not been approved by either my editor or the licensor. It’s just too soon for me to share details.

As for the other projects, there are a variety of reasons that I can’t discuss them yet. Let it suffice to say that, including Warpath and the Wolverine book, I expect to have two books published in 2006, and two more in 2007.

Q: There is a very active “fan fiction” scene across the Internet, for all types of shows and media. Do you feel that aspiring writers would benefit from becoming a part of that scene?

A: It’s difficult for me to say, one way or the other. I know of some professional authors who, in their early days, dabbled in fan fiction. Conversely, I know of a few who have always eschewed fan fiction in favor of participating in writing workshops, and others who swear by the simpler method of writing lots of stories and submitting them until something sells.

I won’t rule out the possibility that there are writers who might be able to hone their skills in a fan-fiction forum, then later make the jump to writing such stories professionally. After all, anything is possible.

But one of the problems, in my opinion, with acclimating oneself to writing fan fiction is that, if one intends to write professional media tie-in novels or short stories, it’s not an accurate reflection of the experience. Fan fiction often deliberately flouts the sort of arbitrary restrictions that tie-in franchises impose on new authors as a way of testing whether or not the author is capable of “playing with other people’s toys” without breaking them. As a result, one develops bad habits as a fan-fiction writer.

Again, I know there will always be those who defy this stereotype and distinguish themselves from their peers. But I think that fan fiction is often regarded by many professional editors as being an “unprofessional” forum, and it isn’t taken as seriously as sales of short fiction to magazines or a really good, agented spec submission that adheres to the editors’ guidelines.

Q: With Star Trek off the air and the novel ranges moving in some exciting directions, do you see Star Trek books becoming even more important over the next several years to fans?

A: I don’t know, but I certainly hope so. I love writing Star Trek novels, and an increase in popular demand and retail sales will help me (and many other talented people) continue doing so.

Q: What advice, as a published professional, would you give aspiring writers looking to become professionals themselves?

A: Marry someone rich, if you can. Failing that, get a good job with insurance and benefits, save money for the future, and don’t get swamped with debt.

I know those seem like joking responses, but I’m serious. Writing simply does not pay very well for the vast majority of people who do it for a living, and it can take many years to establish oneself to the point that other, full-time employment is no longer needed to survive. Of course, this will depend in part on where you live, the cost of living in that place, whether you have children, whether you have a working spouse, and/or whether you have the pathetic good fortune to be published while still living a subsidized existence in your parents’ basement.

Other than that, write. All the time. Even if what you write doesn’t seem commercially viable, write it anyway. It might be a fragment of a story that you don’t know what to do with yet, but that you can’t stop thinking about. Maybe it’s your memoirs. Maybe it’s a dream you had that haunts you.

Another bit of serious advice: Travel. Even if at first that just means into new neighborhoods, try to get a feel for different places, different people. One of the most exciting travel experiences I ever had was spending a week alone in a country where I didn’t speak the language and forcing myself to find a way to get around and communicate with people.

Also, remember that, for a writer, no life experience is wasted. Don’t be afraid of intense experiences; learn to describe physical and emotional states; write about subjects on which you have strong feelings and opinions. And don’t be afraid to piss people off. Ruffle feathers. Make people think. Even if they hate what you say and disagree with you, make an impact.

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