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.