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My Writing Heroes pt1 – J Michael Straczynski

The space station, Babylon 5
A shining beacon in space, all alone in the night…

My personal writing hero– or at least the person mostly responsible for my writing– is my dad. When I realised he had written a few stories for BBC radio (and been paid!) I began to think that maybe if you wrote enough, you could make a living doing something fun, using your imagination. This was sometime in the late eighties or early nineties, and while I couldn’t appreciate dad’s writing then, I have heard recordings of the stories since and, you know, they were pretty good.

My dad also encouraged me to write as well. He knew what my passion was like, and so he shared parts of his own journey with me (although he doesn’t write much any more, I don’t think I would have kept going without his encouragement — thanks, dad; I know you’ll be reading this and blushing a little!), as we both went on a journey to work out how to write more and better.

One of the key ingredients in both of our writing journeys was the American magazine, Writer’s Digest. Two columns in particular were of interest to us. One was Nancy Kress’s fiction column (she had some great advice, and while her books weren’t readily available in the UK, I did track some down in the US and she really did–still does?–practice what she preached), which both dad and I read. But because I wanted to write for TV and film, I was drawn the script writing columns by a man named J Michael Straczynksi (Or, JMS for short).

Writer, J Michael Straczynski
JMS himself — all hail the Great Maker

I don’t remember the specifics of the columns now, but I remember realising that this guy had worked on some shows I grew up with: Murder She Wrote, He Man and the Masters of the Universe, and a ton of others. I also remember JMS mentioning in one column how had a show he was working on: an SF show called Babylon 5 that sounded right up my Star Trek loving, early teenage street. And when that show finally came to be, I studied the damn thing closely, especially when Channel 4 put it on here in the UK. And I loved it.

Babylon 5 became my bible and template for learning how to construct stories. Although a few of my friends mocked the earlier episodes (no denying there were a few shaky sets or storytelling wobbles as the show found its feet, and the budget occasionally showed through compared to the slick shows coming out of the Star Trek franchise at the time) I watched with fascination, keeping my eye on how the story unfolded, and how I could relate the scripts to the columns in some way.

At some point the Writer’s Digets columns were taken over by Larry G Ditillio (who served as B5’s script editor) but I still sought out anything by Straczynski I could find. He formed my early writer brain in a professional sense. When I realised a few years later that he was taking over the Spider Man comics, that brought me back into the Marvel comics world big time after years following Batman. I devoured his brilliant thirteen issue original comic, Midnight Nation, and of course I later bought his book of scriptwriting (now, sadly out of print, but it was my bible for years and still sits on my shelves).

I began to see, too, how writers would echo themselves through their work. A line that was key to Babylon 5– about how a character’s father told them to “never start a fight, but always finish it” worked its way into his script for The Changeling, a 1920s set thriller which appeared partially in early draft form in his scriptwriting book. And, decades later, I was thriller to find Straczynski writing his memoir, which was surprisingly affecting on an emotional level, and another book about writing that I now recommend to almost anyone who’ll listen: Becoming a Writer, Staying A Writer.

The cover to Becoming a Writer, Staying a Writer
If you want to be a writer — or if you already are — you should read this book

What I think I have always loved about Straczynski’s writing is the way in which he can balance the theatrical with the human scale. I always thought watching Babylon 5 that there was an aspect of the theatre script to it in the way characters delivered monologues or asides that were at once artificial and yet utterly in character and emotionally revealing (Ambassadors G’Kar and Mollari are perfect examples). But he could also write more natural drama, too, as evidenced in his all-too-human scripts for the Wachowski brothers’ produced Sense-8.

As we speak, I have his recent novel, TOGETHER WE WILL GO on my TBR pile (admittedly, its a big pile — always has been, always will be!) and I’m looking forward to seeing how he works with prose stylings. I have a feeling I won’t be disappointed…

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