Discipline Before Inspiration: An Interview with Carlos Cisco

Back in the day, when I co-wrote at the horror RPG blog Reckoning of the Dead, we ran a short series of long-form interviews; I found the whole process of conducting these interviews really rewarding. I got to meet interesting people, ask them questions I was curious about, and simply have some nice conversations. 

So I’ve decided to start running similar interviews here on Short Disturbances, interviews with writers and storytellers of all kinds. These interviews will be long form, as they were at Reckoning, which will hopefully give some breadth and scope to these conversations, and let our interviewees stretch their metaphorical legs. (Ever read The Paris Review’s interviews of writers? Love those things.)

I’m so, so pleased that our first interview is with Carlos Cisco. Recently made a staff writer on Star Trek: Discovery, Carlos co-wrote the mid-season 4 finale, “…But to Connect.” In addition to being a screenwriter and playwright, Carlos also writes for tabletop roleplaying games. When I discovered a Star Trek screenwriter who also writes D&D adventures and supplements (and digs horror), it was a confluence of simply too many of my interests not to invite him. We talk about zombies, getting the actor beaten out of you, and the storytelling pleasures of both RPGs and TV.

Now sit back, make yourself a cucumber-cilantro mojito, and enjoy this interview with Carlos Cisco.

The following interview has been edited lightly for clarity and organization.


Noah Lloyd: Thank you so much for coming on. Let’s just start at the beginning. How did you start writing and why do you keep doing it?

Carlos Cisco: Well that second question is the question. 

The very beginning. If I’m thinking all the way back, I think the first bit of “writing writing” that I did was an assignment in a middle school class where we had to write a short story for younger kids, and I ended up doing a piece of what I later would learn is fanfic, of characters created by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, it was a Raistlin and Caramon story [of the Dragonlance novels]. And so that was the first thing, but I had always been into tabletop RPGs and theater, so storytelling was always part and parcel to who I was. 

But I didn’t really start “writing writing” until college, when I got the actor beaten out of me. In my thesis I adapted some pieces of novels that I really liked, and I acted and directed in them. And that was kind of my first real taste of writing something that people got a response out of. Of course, it was an adaptation. So it wasn’t entirely my words. But it was still going up on stage.

But I didn’t know what to do with, like, a 2.5 GPA in theater. I didn’t pay attention in a lot of my general ed classes, and I was reading other things that I was more interested in. I have really bad ADHD, and I wasn’t medicated at the time, so that’s part of it. So I went to a film program.

I end up in New Mexico State University, and I had a teacher there in an acting for film class. And we had to write our own monologues and perform them. I performed my monologue and my teacher pulled me aside after class. She’s like, “Look, you’re fine as an actor. But honestly, I think you’re a writer.” And I was like, yeah, that sounds better.

That’s no shade to actors, because I think that’s an incredibly hard discipline and an incredibly hard life in terms of the kinds of rejection and self-doubt that you deal with. As a writer, I feel like you have a little more agency to create on your own. So that’s where I got started in screenwriting. Then I ended up at Florida State University for my grad program, where it was a dual degree program in theater and film. We would do one semester of TV writing and screenwriting and then another semester of playwriting. It was kind of back and forth. I ended up focusing on TV writing while I was there, but did have a play that had a reading out here with a bunch of great TV actors.

And it’s been produced in New York and Portland since. And then I moved out to L.A. shortly after grad school.

And it’s just been that ever since, climbing that ladder. 

NL: Can I ask what the play you had produced was about?

CC: Yeah, it’s called The Last Days. It was End Times Theater Productions in New York and Post 8 Theater in Portland and then Red Dog Squadron did the reading out here in L.A.

It’s a zombie apocalypse play. Mind you, I wrote this before even Walking Dead had come out, I’ve always been a big zombie fan, like George Romero’s huge.

I’ll pretty much watch any zombie thing, even if it’s terrible. Especially if it’s terrible. But the play was about four people in a cabin, one of them, who’s sort of the emotional rock of the family, is bitten at the very beginning, but he won’t tell anyone. By the second act he’s succumbed to it, but they can’t kill him. And he starts talking to them, but they all know zombies can’t talk, so it becomes a sort of descent into madness, that kind of thing.

NL: Can we talk about horror more generally for a second?

CC: Oh, yeah, I love horror.

NL: What do you love about it?

CC: I think it’s a great medium for exploring our fears in a safe place where things can’t actually hurt us. I also think horror stories are a great gauge for where we are culturally. We are what eats us.

Because it always seems like there is the monster du jour. We had the massive zombie stuff, you know, five to ten years ago, vampires right before that. And you know, it’s sort of, what is the existential dread that is gnawing at us? And what monster is that going to take the form of? 

NL: Turning back to your writing journey, starting to write for Hollywood and on television, is there a particular piece of writing you can point to that opened doors?

CC: I mean, not any one piece. People say you have to write one script and I don’t believe that. Because unless it was just luck of the draw and you got shot out of a cannon and that first script that you wrote is the thing that launches your career, like more power to you, but if you just have that one good magical script that you might have sold or that got you staffed, you’re going to have trouble in the off seasons. 

Every script that you write builds on what you’ve learned from the previous scripts.

Every script that you write builds on what you’ve learned from the previous scripts. And so it’s hard for me to point to any one thing and say, “This was the thing that got me this.” If I’m looking back, The Last Days has come up several times, and that has gotten me several meetings here and there. At the same time, so have new things that I’ve written. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to that order. It’s just timing, I guess, what people are interested in reading at the time. But there is a script that got me my staff job, you know? There was another script that got me the writer’s assistant job that led to my staffing gig.

So again, all of these things are part and parcel to one another. I’ve written probably ten pilots and about six or seven features and four plays. And one or two of those things in each of those categories has gotten attention.

But it’s not because the other stuff is bad or or not working–or it might be–but I think it’s largely because, at the time, people were reading that type of thing or they weren’t. But this stuff always comes back around. Like, sometimes I get requests for a script that I wrote seven years ago and I’m like, “Why is someone wanting to read that one? I have newer stuff that’s better.” [Laughs.]

NL: What is the writing process like for you? When you decide to sit down and write your eleventh pilot, what is that going to look like?

CC: I live in fear of this question because I feel like if I peel back the curtain, there’s nothing at all there. I don’t really think of what I have as a process. I just get up in the morning and sometimes I sit down and I write and I churn out, you know, ten, fifteen pages, and sometimes I sit down and it’s like pulling teeth.

It’s just sitting down and doing it. It’s forcing yourself to have enough discipline to sit down and do it. 

I don’t have any particular method that I find works. It’s just sitting down and doing it. It’s forcing yourself to have enough discipline to sit down and do it. 

Not every day. Everybody who tells you to write every day, I just feel like that’s so prescriptive  that it’s just not realistic for a lot of people, especially if you’re trying to survive in capitalism. You know, you have to take those times that you have. 

I mean, not only taking the time when you have creative energy, because I don’t believe in creative energy or inspiration or writer’s block. It’s just how willing are you to do the work on that day? So it’s less about process for me and more about discipline. I wish I had tricks and things like that. 

But I do outline, I do outline very extensively. If you’re looking at a sort of process thing that I do, I try to get as detailed as possible when I get to that stage, as it makes the actual writing very painless, because then I’m pretty much just writing dialogue, refining the action and stuff like that.

So it really helps me get a sense of the shape of the piece before I dive in and make more permanent feeling choices. Or find scenes that I fall in love with that later are not going to work structurally. 

So yeah. Beat something out kind of in its most basic shape, then do a really detailed outline, and then write it as fast as I can. And I don’t rewrite as I’m writing. That’s the other thing. I just write, I just write forward and then I’ll fix things on the way back. I mean, if I think of something later I might go back the next day and add something in just so that it’s there, but I’m not going to go back and litigate stuff that I wrote three days ago when I could just be pushing forward and finding the voice of the piece generally. 

NL: I’ll try not to say the word “process” again. [They will.] But, since you mentioned you don’t rewrite while you’re doing your very first draft, what is revision like for you? And I’m asking this as someone who finds revision pretty difficult. 

CC: Well, if I’ve done it right, I’ve put it down for a week or two, and then I print it out in a different font and read it with new eyes. It’s like tricking my brain. And I mark it up and I’m just like, “This is working, this is tracking.” And the first pass for me is a much more broad and general pass of, Are the things that I’m trying to pay off in act three–or act four or five, depending–are they going to pay off in the end? Am I seeding those things in the beginning? Are all of those plot things tracking? 

I like to start with character, but when I rewrite it, I try to start with plot and then I dig in on, “Okay, are these character moments working, are they responding in an emotionally honest way?” Then I’ll do individual character passes, where I try to really look at each scene from that character’s point of view and from no other point of view. This is a stage where everything balloons for me. because it gets very full of every character’s POV in a scene. And if there’s a big scene, you know, it tends to fill up and then you pare back. Because even if I’m not actually in this character’s POV, at least now I understand the perspective that they’re coming from so if they have dialogue or if they have action, that’s what they’re approaching it with. 

I have a better and more honest idea of what my characters are doing and feeling when I do that individual sweep. And then it gets more granular as you go. I’ll do a dialogue pass where I don’t even look at action. I’ll do action passes, I’ll do a widow pass, where I clean up all those single-word lines, and gain seven pages inexplicably off of changing three lines. I don’t know the magic of screenwriting software, but somehow that works. But yeah, that would be the way I go through it.

NL: That, I think, is really helpful to hear. It’s not just, “I’m gonna sit down and write my second draft,” it’s, “I’m focusing on a particular element as I move through this draft,” and then moving on to another element.

CC: Well, it’s just too easy to get bogged down in everything. If I know that I’m reading it today, just from this character’s perspective, it gets a lot easier. You can move through it a little faster because you’re not having to think about how the other characters are emotionally responding to things yet.

NL: Still thinking about process, I’d love to talk about Star Trek: Discovery a little bit. You co-wrote season 4, episode 7, “…But to Connect.” Were you able to write it the way you would want to? E.g., put the script in a drawer for two weeks? And then I’d love to hear what co-writing it with Terri Hughes Burton was like.

CC: When I am working on my own things, I can work at a very leisurely pace. I’m an early morning riser, so I’ll usually work from like six to eleven, and then I feel like that’s a good day for me. And I’ll often feel guilty in the afternoon because I’m like, “Man, I should be doing work.” But then I’m like, “I did five hours of writing this morning.” I feel like that’s a pretty good accomplishment.

But for Star Trek, and TV shows across the board–because even when I worked on East Los High–you’re on a very rapid timeframe, so start to finish between the beginning of an episode to the end of writing is roughly about a month. And that’s from conception of the idea to finishing it. That’s pretty common in most TV shows. And in a lot of TV shows, you generally will have a week to write the first draft. So you’ll go off and write it, and there will be rewrites and stuff like that that will come back subsequently. TV is a very rapid turnover.

So I have to work at a much more accelerated pace in television. But I like that because I can work that fast, and it helps me work faster when I’m doing my own stuff. Yes, I like to work at a more leisurely pace, but you know, I do have deadlines. So I also know that I can whip something out very quickly if I need to. It’s actually a really big confidence boost to know that I can do that. 

And working with Terri was amazing. If you look at her IMDb, she comes from a pretty incredible genre pedigree. She was just such a great collaborator, really great mentor. I learned a ton from her. I was really grateful to have Terri as a writing partner. I had never written with a writing partner before, but it wasn’t something that bothered me in any sense. 

For TV especially, you know, it’s not my show. I am there to tell the best version of the show that Michelle and Alex want. And that’s the same with any TV show. Especially as a lower level writer, you are there to help deliver the show that the showrunner wants and envisions. And obviously, you’re there to contribute your voice and all that throughout the process, but at the end of the day, what you’re delivering is the show that your boss wants. 

And I think what’s great is that in general, the show that our bosses envisioned and the show the rest of us envisioned is a pretty similar show. We all want to see Star Trek. It was a really amazing process throughout. 

Timing-wise it was a little harrowing. I went to set at the same time that I was writing my first episode remotely. Also the same week as the presidential election. So it was a bit stressful.

NL: Let’s talk about that a little bit. What kind of lessons did you learn from getting to see production, despite all of those things going on at once?

CC: Well, you know, COVID production, was interesting because, as the pandemic went on, more and more writers were going back to set. But when we were shooting, it was very early and writers weren’t being sent to set yet, especially because we shoot in Canada and there would be a two-week quarantine for us. So the solution was to produce remotely. So I was carried around like a Futurama head in a jar by a very poor but hardworking PA.

But lessons that I took from set. It’s a little weird because I felt so removed from the process. And, you know, I was definitely included throughout all the rehearsals and stuff like that. But it’s hard to get a big picture of the set and really take in the scope of things when I’m sitting in my kitchen. So the lesson, I guess, is that I hope I get to go to set the next time I do an episode. Just because I do think there are a lot of lessons that get to your point, that you would learn on production, and skills that you would gain, that I just don’t have yet, or that I have but are in a more abstract or limited capacity. 

I know how to be on set, I’ve been on many sets, but it’s also like I haven’t really been on a TV set before. 

NL: Especially at the scale of something like Star Trek: Discovery.

CC: Yeah. 

NL: That’s probably a good segue. Getting on set sounds like one of them, but what are the other next steps that you’re hopeful for in your career?

CC: I sometimes think about running shows and then I think about how much work that is, and then I’m like, “You know, I really would just like to be a consulting producer. Where I come in for three days a week on a show and then go off and do my own development work.” Like honestly, that would be great. [Laughs.

But no, I would love to run a show one day. I honestly would love to be a killer second on shows and just work all the time and be known for coming in and being a person who can help elevate your show and help run it. I think that’s something I could be really good at. Not that I don’t think I can’t run my own shows. I just know how hard that is and like, it’s a lot.

I’d love to see some features get made, but I don’t really have any ambition to direct all that much. Yeah. I just want to write and keep working. Really, I would like a long, if not storied, career, if that makes sense. I don’t mind not being the megastar producer or showrunner. I just want to work in this business sustainably until it is no longer feasible to live in Los Angeles.

NL: I would be very remiss not talking about tabletop roleplaying games at some point, but before we turn to that, any advice for writers who might be three-to-five years behind you in their career?

…the most important rule of Hollywood is don’t be an asshole.

CC: The chief lesson–and this should be fairly obvious to everyone, and if you’re three, four or five years into your writing journey, I hope you know this, but it does bear repeating–the most important rule of Hollywood is don’t be an asshole. And I say that not jesting whatsoever. This is a business of collaborations and it’s a business in which, despite the short memory of the business side of things, the people side of things remembers.

And so that assistant. That barista. Anyone out in Los Angeles? 

NL: You might be working with someday.

CC: You might be working for. So just keep that in mind. Everyone out here in this business is trying to work towards the next stage. And if you can be someone who helps bolster them, not necessarily helping their career, but just being a person who is there for people as opposed to feeling like you’re competing with everyone, you’re going to do a lot better.

NL: That’s great, thank you. 

So let’s talk about roleplaying games a little bit. I know that RPGs are quite popular among screenwriters and actors–John and Craig are always talking about D&D on Scriptnotes–so what draws you personally to tabletop roleplaying games, whether as a player or a game master?

CC: Well up until recently, I’ve been a forever GM. I’m perpetually the person putting together the group and, you know, driving it forward. I’m now in my last three-to-four sessions of a campaign that has run since the December before the pandemic. It’s been amazing to have that. We started in person, but then we moved to Roll 20.

I’ve been running online campaigns with friends for years now, so that was not a hard adjustment for me. But it was a real sanity saver throughout all this, being able to actually interact with friends that I wanted to see and have something that took our minds off the horrors of the world, and made us feel like we were able to do something actionable. So maybe that’s part of the appeal. But I think for me, I’ve always been a bit of a storyteller.

You know what I love about it, versus something like television writing–and I love television writing for the exact opposite reasons–is that I can create a world like a sandbox, and then let people loose in it and not worry about what the characters are going to do. Because that’s the player character’s prerogative. I don’t have to worry about character motivation in terms of the story’s main characters. I just have to be the world that responds to their agency. And there’s something so freeing in that. I can build the world, even though the lens that’s going to look at it is thisssss tiny. [Makes a telescope with his fingers.] I still get an unfettered experience in creating a place that feels lived in.

Conversely, like TV writing, I get to create a world and come up with character motivations, and those motherfuckers will do everything I say because I said so, and they’re going to tell the story that I want to tell as opposed to just being agents of chaos. [Laughter.]

NL: You don’t have to threaten to drop a piano on television characters to get them back in the plot.

CC: Yeah, yeah. And again, I feel like I’m a pretty roll-with-the-punches type of GM. But at the same time, there is the appeal in television of, “the characters are going to do this, they’re going to interact with this person at the moment that they need to and it will be the most narratively satisfying, and the lines that they say are going to come out exactly the way they need to,” you know? And it doesn’t always work out that way in tabletop RPGs, but that’s also the beautiful mess of the whole thing.

And so for me, that’s really the appeal of RPGs: the unfettered world building, and then the chaotic element of it, that unpredictability, making me think on my feet, which I actually think makes me better in the writers’ room. It forces me to get better at improv, to really be able to respond to different narrative stimuli that maybe are not coming out of traditional spaces. And then be like, “OK, I can pivot to this.” So I do think the skills have been kind of hand in hand.

NL: Well that’s what I was hoping to hear! That there is at least some transfer.

CC: Well, I think again, TV writing is so collaborative, and tabletop RPGs, if you’re doing them right, are also very collaborative. And so I think that they have a lot of common threads. I mean, the DM is the showrunner of the game. You’re there to present the story you’re trying to present, but your other writers, your players, are going to throw things at you that you’re not expecting, and it’s sometimes better than the things you thought of initially.

NL: What’s the campaign you’ve been playing since December 2019? Is that D&D?

CC: Oh, yeah, I did Descent into Avernus. I do like to homebrew my own campaigns generally, but I didn’t have the bandwidth to do that at the time. Plus, I wanted to play the Mad Max in hell sort of thing. It’s been a lot of fun. 

NL: So what has writing for TTRPGs been like? When did you start working in that medium in relation to your screenwriting career?

CC: I started when I was a writer’s assistant, so I guess that was 2019, or the tail end of 2018. A call was put out for the Eat the Rich collection on the DMs Guild, which was a group of explicitly anti-capitalist adventures. And I decided, “I’ll take a stab at this, I’m a poor assistant, I need an alternate income stream.” Little did I know how little money there is in TTRPG writing. But I discovered that I actually really enjoyed it. And, subjectively, I felt like I was pretty good at it.

And it just sort of kept going. I started doing more collections, and then I started branching out outside of D&D. But it was also introducing me to a lot of really fascinating IP that I hadn’t been exposed to, especially in the indie TTRPG space, which, to me, felt ripe for adaptation. Right before the pandemic, Anne Cofell Saunders–who is a writer on Star Trek: Discovery and is now showrunning Beacon 23–and I optioned #iHunt, which is a really cool dark urban fantasy RPG by Olivia Hill and Philomena Young. It’s essentially Buffy but Uber. 

It was, honestly, one of the most amazing sourcebooks I’ve ever seen, hands down. The layout and design of it is so cool. You get a really fascinating lesson in anti-capitalist theory. And we really loved it. We started pitching it out and then pandemic, well, you know, either you sold something right away at the beginning of the pandemic or you fell into that category where everyone said, “We don’t know how long this is going to go on!” 

So it didn’t go, but it also opened a door for me, and I’ve now optioned a couple of other tabletop RPGs and written one pilot and a feature based off them, and we’re taking them out right now. 

NL: Before we get to our closing lightning round, are there any other storytellers that you would like to see interviewed in a format like this one?

CC: There are two that, I would say, would be fascinating. There’s Orion D Black, who is the creative director at Dimension 20, and I think they’re just a brilliant human doing really groundbreaking stuff in the streaming TTRPG world. 

And James Introcaso is a good friend of mine and the editor of Arcadia. I just think he’s a fascinating human. I think his journey through game design and writing is really cool. He’s a straight, white, cis guy who really puts his money where his mouth is when it comes to looking for diverse voices to include. And yeah, I think he’s just really smart and talented. And I would love to hear more about his process when it comes to writing and editing.

NL: All right, lightning round.

Best cocktail, mocktail, or other beverage?

CC: I don’t drink that much anymore, but when I did in college there was a bar that served something called a Kenzo, which is just the name of the bartender. It’s basically a mojito, but instead of mint, you put in cucumber and cilantro. It’s really, really good. Unless you don’t like cilantro, then it’s probably really bad. 

NL: Alien or Aliens?

CC: That’s just not fair. [Thoughtful pause.] It’s impossible. 

NL: If someone told you that you had to memorize an entire novel word for word, what book would you pick?

CC: Lamb by Christopher Moore. 

NL: Most underrated or sadly forgotten TV show/movie?

CC: Oh man, that’s a hard one.

Okay, movie. I will never stop singing its praises because I saw it way too young and I feel like it made an outsized impression on me. Wizards by Ralph Bakshi. It’s a really, really weird, post-apocalyptic fantasy where an evil wizard discovers Hitler’s propaganda machine and uses it to enrage and brainwash his army of orcs and mutants. It’s fucked up and weird. 

NL: [After frantic googling.] The tagline is, “An epic fantasy of peace and magic.” I can get behind that.

CC: It’s rad. 

NL: Tell us about one thing we haven’t talked about yet today that lives rent-free in your brain.

CC: I think the callous decision to kill off all the generation one Transformers in the 1986 Transformers movie has led to one of the most enduring cinematic pieces of children’s programming that there has ever been.

NL: Perfection.

Thanks so much for taking the time, Carlos.

CC: Thank you.

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