Frequently during interviews, I am asked how I got my start as a professional writer. One of my most-recounted anecdotes is the story of how, at the age of fourteen, I asked TV producer Roger Price to let me submit spec-script pages to his sketch-comedy show You Can’t Do That on Television. That experience set in motion a series of events that helped lead me to the life and career I have today.
Until recently, I’d not had an opportunity to thank Mr. Price for his kind counsel and consideration. Thanks to fellow Star Trek author Una McCormack, that has been rectified.
Una heard me tell my “getting started” story to Matthew Rushing at the Literary Treks podcast, and realized that the Roger Price in my tale was the same producer who had created a popular British science-fiction television series titled The Tomorrow People, of which she had been a fan. She contacted a friend of hers who works as a British TV historian, who put her in touch with Andy Davidson, who has written a book about The Tomorrow People and stays in contact with Roger Price.
A few days ago, with Andy’s help, I was able to send the following letter of thanks to Roger Price:
Dear Mr. Price,
Twenty-nine years ago, you helped change my life.
I was a freshman in high school in a small town in western Massachusetts. For a few years, I had been watching a program you produced titled You Can’t Do That on Television. It had become a staple of my after-school afternoon viewing (due in no small part to my adolescent infatuation with Christine McGlade, but that’s another story).
As a young boy I had daydreamed of writing novels, but by the time I had started high school the rise of music videos had sparked my interest in filmmaking and screenwriting. One day I mentioned to my freshman-year English teacher, Mr. Ken Beals, that I thought I could learn to write sketches such as those on You Can’t Do That on Television.
Many teachers would have nodded, humored their student’s presumption, and let the matter pass. But Mr. Beals saw some spark of talent or inspiration in me; he encouraged me to learn about television writing, and to prepare a short report about my experience as an extra-credit assignment.
That afternoon when I sat down to watch your show, I put a tape in the VCR and recorded the closing credits. Then I studied them, making special note of the name of the production company, where it was based, and who seemed to be in charge. Next, I called the directory assistance operator for the Toronto area and asked for the listing for Carleton Productions. I fully expected to be told the number was unlisted, and I was pleasantly surprised when the operator read it to me.
I undertook my next step without premeditation, which is likely for the best. Had I thought about what I was going to do, I might have talked myself out of it. I called the main number for Carleton Productions. A woman answered and asked how she could direct my call. Without missing a beat, I said with all the confidence I could muster: “Roger Price, please.”
Your extension started to ring. I imagined an executive assistant would answer, play the part of your gatekeeper, and fend off my silly inquiry.
You answered your own phone.
I still remember my unrehearsed spiel. I said hello and introduced myself, and I explained that I was a 14-year-old high-school student who wanted to try to write for your show. I steeled my nerves, expecting to be laughed off the line.
Then you surprised me: “All right,” you said. “What do you know about television script-writing?”
“Not much,” I admitted. “In fact, nothing.”
Over the next few minutes of that conversation, you explained to me, with great precision and patience, the basics of television script format. What the margins were on each side of the page; what was capitalized and what was mixed-case; what to indent and by how much; the ideal length of a sketch; what a “standing set” was and why it was important to stick to those in my script.
Finally, you gave me the mailing address for your office, and invited me to submit my sketches directly to you.
Flush with excitement — and more than a mite bewildered by the surreality of what had just happened — I retreated to my corner in my parents’ basement, sat down at my typewriter, and set to work putting words on paper, in the format you had just taught me in a single phone call.
I spent a few nights working on my pages (always after finishing my homework), until I was sure I was ready. I had a sheaf of pages, cleanly typed, and I believed them to be hilarious. I stuck them into an envelope, filled out the customs paperwork while the FedEx driver waited at the door, and cast my literary bread upon the water.
FedEx lost that envelope somewhere at the customs checkpoint. So I made a photocopy of my photocopied duplicates of the pages and sent them again.
It should come as no shock that my sketches were politely rejected. At the time I was disappointed but not surprised. In truth, I was thrilled merely to have been offered a chance, to have been treated like a professional.
The real victory of that endeavor, however, was that it convinced my mother I was serious about writing as a profession. She had been taking night classes at a local community college, and in the autumn after my flirtation with You Can’t Do That on Television, she noticed that on the same nights and times as one of her business classes, there was a screenwriting class. She mentioned it to me and said that if I got permission from my high school to take a college-level writing class, she would pay for it.
I received the permission, I took the class, and I aced it, cementing my passion not only for screenwriting but for storytelling and wordsmithing of all kinds. That class was a big part of what led to my admission at NYU Film School. My training at NYU eventually led to me making freelance script sales at two of my favorite television series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek Voyager.
Since 2001, I’ve returned to my first love: writing novels. I’ve written more than two dozen published books of fiction and non-fiction, two of which recently earned spots on the New York Times bestseller list. I’ve also written for comic books, video games, live theater, magazines, and newspapers.
Over the past few years, I have granted many interviews to fans and the media. Whenever I am asked how I got started as a professional writer, I tell the story of myself as a 14-year-old boy who had the audacity to call a stranger in another country to ask for a shot at going pro, and the generosity of a television producer named Roger Price who gave me that chance, and whose act of kindness started me on the path to the career I have today, nearly three decades later.
I hope you’ll forgive the length of this missive, and that you’ll accept my deepest and most sincere thanks for that brief but ultimately life-changing conversation in 1984. I don’t know if you remember that discussion, sir, but I just wanted you to know that I still do — and that I will never forget it, as long as I live.
Wishing you all the best,
~ David Mack
This morning I was delighted to receive this reply from Roger Price, who is now retired and living in France:
Subject: Wow! What goes around comes around.
I am flattered, I really am. Your email, forwarded to me by Andy Davidson, really made my day. I was showing it off to my grandchildren last night. Oddly enough only a couple of days before I had sent the foreword to Andy for his new book – after much necessary pestering by him. I have attached it so you can see what I’m talking about when I say “What goes around comes around.” Basically I did the same as you, and the writer/producer was called Charles Chilton.
I always meant to do what you have done for me and write to Charles Chilton and thank him. I never did. I suppose that in my own mind I had assumed he was dead. I was truly saddened and jolted by guilt to learn that he actually died on 2nd January this year – 2013. I shall regret for the rest of my life never having written the sort of wonderful letter to him which you wrote to me. Thank you so very very much.
I wrote back to Roger this afternoon:
“What goes around comes around.”
Indeed it does. Just over a year ago, I received an e-mail from a 14-year-old fan of my books who asked for advice on how to write his own novels.
For a moment I considered giving him the pat answer, “Read a lot and just keep on writing,” but then I noted that his e-mail specified that he was looking for advice on how to structure his stories and solve his plotting problems.
Realizing that he needed specific information, I wrote him a lengthy reply explaining the basic elements of narrative structure, and I detailed some techniques I had learned over the years for how to build stories from the ground up.
As I wrote that letter, I found myself thinking back to the advice you gave me when I was 14, and I thought, “This is the way it should be — pay the kindness forward and try to help another artist find his way onto the path.”
With Roger Price’s permission, I’m sharing these excerpts from our correspondence to remind all of you reading this to remember to thank the people in your life who have helped you, encouraged you, inspired you, and taken the time to share their knowledge and experience.
Perhaps that boon came to you from a teacher, a mentor, a colleague, or — as in the case of myself, Mr. Price, and the fan who contacted me last year — simply a kind stranger. But no matter to whom you owe a debt of thanks, acknowledge them while you still can, and remember to pay it forward when your turn comes.