This is the tale of PROBE: The Novel I Didn't Write

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Title: This is the tale of PROBE: The Novel I Didn't Write (NOTE: the essay does not have a title; the title used here on Fanlore is the first line of the essay.)
Creator: Margaret Wander Bonanno
Date(s): 1990
Medium: print
Fandom: Star Trek: TOS
Topic:
External Links: pdf
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This is the tale of PROBE: The Novel I Didn't Write is a 17-page essay by Margaret Wander Bonanno. It is not dated, but was written in 2002 or after.

The topic is an unapproved Star Trek: TOS tie-in book that was never approved called "Music of the Spheres." That manuscript was written in 1990 by Margaret Wander Bonanno.

Seven percent of "Music of the Spheres" was used in Probe by Gene DeWeese which was published in 1992.

Introduction

This is the tale of PROBE: The Novel I Didn't Write. While I realize it's been over a decade since the book was published, and I've told my version of events in bits and pieces over that period of time, I wanted to finally set everything down in print and then move on.

To begin, Music of the Spheres, not PROBE, is the novel I did write. You may request a free copy by emailing me at garamet@gmail.com.

Please feel free to share it with whomever you wish. I especially ask, if you know anyone who loves STAR TREK and does not own a computer, that you print a copy for them.

WARNING: This book cannot be copyrighted. It can only be given away. I caution you: Do not accept payment for it in any way. Do not attempt to sell it, or even accept repayment for photocopying or mailing costs. If you do so, you will attract the attention of the Paramount Thought Police. You will be assimilated.

A Good Memory, and Notes

BTW, if you're wondering how I remember all this so exactly even after this much time, it's because not long after I was given the Six Day Ultimatum, I was asked to put some notes together for SFWA, the Science Fiction Writers of America, who were bringing a class action suit against Pocket on behalf of the Star Trek novelists. That's a melodrama in itself. But I kept my notes, so that's how I remember.)

Some Topics Discussed

  • changing rules
  • pleasing two masters
  • nitpicking
  • how tie-in authors are paid (or not)
  • "Rockstar: Star Trek editor at Pocket Books in 1990, Trelane: (as in "Power without Constructive Purpose"), an employee at Paramount, The Vampire Lady: The first rewriter" [1])
  • duplicity
  • the mistaken assumption that a character was a caricature of Gene Roddenberry
  • secret memos
  • strife leading to good things
  • fan pressure, fan interest
  • what is canon?
  • tie-in books

Excerpts

Ahem. Now, then, a little back story:

In 1979, two interesting things happened to Star Trek. First was the release of STAR TREK: The Motion Picture. Second was that Paramount Pictures, which owns STAR TREK, licensed Pocket Books, Inc. to publish Star Trek novels (which had formerly been published by Bantam Books). From 1979 through 1987, Pocket published more than 30 STAR TREK novels, many of which became NY Times bestsellers.

In 1987, another milestone in TREK history, STAR TREK: The Next Generation, premiered. This is important. There'll be a quiz later. To understand what happened to certain Trek novels in the late 80s/early 90s, it's important to understand something called a work-for-hire contract.

Usually when a writer sells a novel to a publishing company, the copyright is issued in the writer's name. In other words, while the writer has given the publisher the right to publish the book, the words themselves still belong to the writer. Those words cannot be changed by anyone without the writer's permission.

Under a work-for-hire contract, the words belong to someone else. In the case of Star Trek novels, they belong to the movie studio which leases the rights to a publishing company, which allows a writer to borrow the characters and the settings from their very successful "property" - i.e., a certain TV/film series of our acquaintance - in order to write a novel. Once the novel is finished, the writer not only has to put the characters back where she found them, but the words she has written no longer belong to her, but to the movie company.
In the beginning, this process was very casual. The someone-at-Paramount read each manuscript to make sure that there were no egregious errors. Things like making sure that Spock had green blood, and Kirk's middle name was Tiberius, and McCoy was the only one who got to use real cusswords. The writer knew enough not to kill off (or, worse, marry off) any of the Magnificent Seven, or venture into such dangerous areas as Mary Sue or K/S fiction. (And, no, I'm not going to explain either of those terms. Most of you know what they mean and, if you don't, you'll just have to ask someone who does.) The manuscript was usually okayed after only very minor changes.

In 1990, I wrote a third Star Trek novel, Music of the Spheres. Thematically, the book had a lot to do with music, and I also wanted the title to refer to Pythagoras’ theory that the universe had its own music.

My editor at Pocket said the title was too long. This was the same editor who had worked with me on Strangers from the Sky. We'll call him Rockstar. Or maybe Dire Straits. This is not his real name. But since his real goal in life was to be a rock star (y'know, money for nothing and his chicks for free), that's what we'll call him. "Nobody remembers long titles," said Rockstar.

Now, not to quibble, but Music of the Spheres has the same number of syllables as Strangers from the Sky, and is in fact one letter shorter. No one had trouble remembering Strangers from the Sky. But Rockstar announced that The Novel Formerly Known as Music of the Spheres would hereafter be called Probe. Because he said so. Even if I hadn’t been aware of what was being done to other writers’ work (wait for it), that alone should have warned me there was going to be trouble.

Probe was advertised for release in April, 1991. It was, in fact, released one year later. Touting itself as "the exciting sequel to The Voyage Home," it had my name on the cover. What was left of my manuscript comprised 7% of the words between the covers.

He suggested I write about what happened to the Probe after it left Earth in STIV, trace it back to its planet of origin, and describe who had created it. Neither of us said the word "sequel." We both knew the Gospel According to Trelane, which saith: "Only what you see onscreen is 'real' Star Trek. The novels are not 'real.' Therefore no novel can be a sequel to a film. And no novel can be a sequel to another novel. Thou shalt not write sequels."

Okay, I said, I'll write about the Probe. But can I wrap that story line around a Romulan story, in which Kirk and the Enterprise are assigned to meet with a Romulan ship in the Neutral Zone and begin diplomatic relations (a theme that would be explored vis-à-vis the Klingons in The Undiscovered Country a few years later)?

Rockstar said Yes. Mindful of the unspeakable word "sequel" (not to mention what had happened to several other writers' work in the recent past), I asked him very specifically if I could reuse two of the characters I had created in Dwellers in the Crucible. (Dwellers was, in his own words "our best-seller in 1985"). Seemed to me that a smart editor would want to parlay that into future success.

After some haggling over the title, Rockstar approved my outline in October, 1989. I made it very clear that, in addition to creating several new Romulan characters, I was reintroducing Cléante al Faisal and T'Shael, the human and Vulcan characters whom I'd introduced in Dwellers in the Crucible.

All of these characters were integral to the plot, but in supporting roles. Kirk and Spock and Company still got to do all the serious work of saving the ship, the diplomatic mission, every planet in the surrounding area, and the universe in general.

The outline was sent to Paramount Licensing for approval.

About six weeks later, I received a copy of a one-page memo from Licensing. I will quote Item 2 from that memo here: "Please treat T'Shael and Jandra as supporting characters in this story, rather than major characters, as this tends to slight the STAR TREK regulars."

My initial reaction was "Whew, that was easy!" Because I knew that no way, no how could any of my little characters slight or overshadow Kirk, Spock and Company. So despite what had happened to Brad Ferguson's Flag Full of Stars and the rest, naïf that I was, I thought I was safe. I'd gotten affirmation in writing, hadn't I? I had in hand an Official Memo from Paramount, giving me permission to go forward and write my novel as submitted. What could possibly go wrong?

I was safe, wasn't I? Hoohah.

A few points about that memo. It was typed, not on letterhead stationery, but on plain paper. It was not dated. It was not signed. But I didn’t worry about such details at the time. Silly me.

I completed my manuscript, based on the outline that had been approved by both Pocket Books and Paramount, and in light of the memo from Paramount. Unbeknownst to me, some interesting machinations were transpiring elsewhere.

For one thing, six months before the deadline for completion of PROBE, a completed hardcover dust jacket suddenly arrived in my mailbox. Cover art by Keith Birdsong, my name spelled correctly, nice little synopsis inside the front flap based on my outline and, emblazoned on the back: "THE EXCITING SEQUEL TO THE VOYAGE HOME!"

Now, I was more than a little surprised to find that the dust jacket had been created while the novel was only halfway written, and I asked Rockstar about that. "Oh, no big deal," he said. "Just trying to save a production crunch at the other end."

Uh-huh, okay, whatever. But what really alarmed me was that dirty word on the back cover. You know, the word - gasp! - "sequel."

Because the Gospel According to Trelane dictated that only what we see onscreen is "real" Star Trek. Star Trek novels - even though they generate considerable revenue for Paramount - are not "real." Ergo a novel could never, ever possibly in a million years be considered a - gasp! - sequel to a major motion picture.

I mentioned this to Rockstar. "No big deal," he said. "Besides, the covers have already been printed. It would cost way too much to correct them. Nothing we can do about it now."

That set off a little warning bell in the back of my head but, after all, I did have that memo from Paramount, didn't I? And besides, there was nothing I could do about it now, except finish my manuscript.

My contract for PROBE indicated that the money would be disbursed in two payments. I'd received the first payment when I signed the contract to write PROBE. Now that Rockstar had co-opted the manuscript, I had no idea when/if I would receive the rest. I called my agent. He called Rockstar, who informed him that the rest of my advance was being withheld for "non-acceptance of manuscript."

In other words, I'd been promised 100%, but so far had been paid 50%. The manuscript was "non-accepted," but Pocket intended to publish it anyway, but without paying me because it was "non-accepted." Clear so far, or have you just crossed over into the Twilight Zone? It was clear enough to my agent, who had WORDS with Rockstar.

I do not know what was said during that phone call. I do know that by the end of the conversation, Rockstar had backed down and agreed to withhold only half of the money due me.

However, in order to receive the rest, I would have to sign an addendum to my original contract. When I read the addendum, it indicated that, yes, ultimately I would receive 75% of the original amount owed me, but...well, let me quote the addendum directly:

"In addition, Publisher shall pay $10,000.00 to another writer to make editorial revisions to the Work, which sum shall be charged against Writer's royalty account. It is understood and agreed that neither these nor any other payments made hereunder shall constitute acceptance of the manuscript."

In other words, they could kill the book at any time, but if they didn't, the first $10,000 I earned from it would be handed off to the rewriter. However, if I didn't sign the addendum, I'd receive no money at all. And it was implied that, since Rockstar already had all those dust jackets for PROBE with my name on them, he could publish any damn thing under my name, and there was no way of knowing what would become of the royalties, but I sure wasn't going to see any.

Real life, like fiction, has its story arcs. This is where the good stuff begins.

At some point in the latter half of 1991, my agent called me again to tell me "It's on again." I can't tell you when I first heard Gene DeWeese's name mentioned, but I'd say it was sometime in the fall, six months after the book had failed to appear in bookstores and was creating quite a stir by its absence.

Not that I wasn't helping that stir, you understand. I attended a number of cons that year, and people wanted to know what had happened to the book. I told them as much as I knew, and the fan grapevine took it from there.

By this time, unbeknownst to me, the vampire lady had been asked to do a third rewrite and refused. A package consisting of the dust jacket copy, Trelane's numerous multi-page memos, and whatever had survived the rewrites was sent to Gene DeWeese, and he was asked, on very short notice, to turn this mess into a readable manuscript.

Gene was paid to rewrite the manuscript, but received no royalties. He was doing me a good turn, and I will always appreciate that.

Meanwhile, a couple of fans at Shore Leave that year had asked me if they could somehow get their hands on my original manuscript. At about the same time, a friend in NY volunteered to retype the entire thing on her computer, since all I had was a typewritten hardcopy. This friend printed a couple of copies and gave me a floppy disk, on the odd chance that someday I'd own a computer.

From those printed copies I started making photocopies. My friend had formatted them almost like book galleys, so each copy was about 100 double-sided pages. I brought one of these copies to Wishcon in Springfield, Massachusetts in November '91, intending to give it to one of the fans who'd asked me about it at Shore Leave.

Well, he ended up having to wait for his copy. Because the proceeds from Wishcon were going to the Make-a-Wish Foundation, and while my buddy and I were at the charity auction that Saturday night, he said "Gee, it's a shame you don't have an extra copy of Music of the Spheres. I bet someone would pay a fortune for it at the auction."

Somehow he talked me into going onstage and offering "the manuscript TPTB were afraid to publish" for the auction. It was bought for $200 by a woman who's been a friend ever since.

A tradition started that night. Anytime I attended a con, I'd donate a copy of the manuscript to the charity auction. I'd added a little disclaimer at the front advising anyone in possession of it that they were free to copy it, but not to sell it, since it couldn't be copyrighted, and anyone earning a profit from it could get into trouble with Paramount.

Understand something: PROBE is a perfectly good Star Trek novel. It simply isn't my Star Trek novel. But what was interesting was the fan reaction. To this day people write to me or approach me at cons to say "You know, it didn't sound like you. I'd read Dwellers and Strangers, and this just didn't sound like you." Naturally I tell them where they can find a copy of Music of the Spheres.

As for my being "banned," well, that's an elusive concept. Certainly Rockstar and I would never work together again. He left Pocket as editor not long after PROBE's release. I’d like to think the experience taught him what price honor, but I’ll probably never know.

His assistant eventually got Rockstar's job, but I knew I made him nervous. So nervous, in fact, that he found it necessary to make some gratuitous and inaccurate comments about me in the SFWA newsletter, something one might call an errand of vengeance. But he didn't last long as Star Trek editor, either.

Once Pocket recouped its $10,000, I did earn some money from Gene DeWeese's manuscript. Bizarre, huh? In an ideal world, there might have been a novel called PROBE by Gene DeWeese, and a novel called Music of the Spheres by Margaret Wander Bonanno - alternate tales of who created the Probe, why it came to Earth, and what became of it after it left.

Ah, well. Meanwhile, I had the satisfaction of knowing that my unpublishable manuscript was raising thousands of dollars for charity. And I found myself invited to many more cons than I had been before, because fans wanted to know "the real story behind PROBE." Word of mouth traveled up and down the Eastern Seaboard, across the Midwest and north into Canada, and con committees paid my way from Asheville, North Carolina to Calgary, Alberta, and Portage, Indiana, where Gene DeWeese and I met for the first time and did a She Said/He Said panel about PROBE.

Further Reading/Meta

References

  1. Believed to be "David Stern," "Richard Arnold," and "J.M. Dillard." Probe- Bonanno question, August 2013