So You Want to Write for A Franchise, Or Thanks for My New Kitchen, Mr Lucas: in the Lair with Karen Miller and Sean Williams

As readers of this column know, we regularly and without thought of consequences, kidnap our guests by means of a malfunctioning vortex manipulator. The problem with doing this to people who write Star Wars novels is that they tend to have their own working lightsabres. So we simply chose to politely ask Karen Miller and Sean Williams to chat with us.

We gave them cups of hot chocolate, made sure their lightsabres were safely put in the hallway cupboard, and talked to them about the fractal nature of the Star Wars universe, killing off imaginary races that aren’t pulling their weight, why writing Star Wars is like writing non-fiction, and the fun of a good communal geek-out. Warning: the phrase ‘Star Wars’ occurs more times in this interview than the term ‘camera phone’ occurred in A Scandal in Belgravia – we know and we’re sorry.

An important point to note: they write more than Star Wars. They’re both much published and awarded authors in their own rights, with Karen’s Rogue Agent, Innocent Mage, and Riven Kingdom series, and Sean’s Books of the Change, Books of the Cataclysm, Astropolis, TroubleTwisters (with Garth Nix), The Fixers and The Broken Land series all being best sellers (note: this list is not exhaustive, merely exhausting for those of us who manage maybe 1000 words per day).

Dr Angela: So, the obvious first question: how did you end up writing for the Star Wars franchise?

Karen: Sheer brazen effrontery. I’ve been a Star Wars fan since I was 16, when I sat in the George St cinemas and saw Star Wars (the actual first, original version in which Han Shot First). Fell in love with the story then and there, and I’ve been in love with it ever since. I knew there were Star Wars novels, and I knew that until I was professionally published I didn’t have a hope in hell of writing one … but as soon as I was a published novelist, back in 2005, I contacted the Del Rey editor responsible for the Star Wars fiction line and said, ‘Hey, I’m a huge fan, if ever you’re in the market for a new author I’d love to be considered.’ And eventually, that’s what happened … not the least because Karen Traviss put in a good word for me, bless her! 

Sean: Now I feel old! I was 10 in 1977 and the first movie blew me away. I read a ton of the tieins back then, and they were among several critical influences that encouraged me to write my own space opera later in life. When Shane Dix and I sold our Evergence series (explicitly intended as a mash-up between Star Wars and Blake’s 7) our agent began nagging Del Rey to give us a gig working in the franchise. It took a while, but he got there. I’ll never forget the surreal wonder of that 4am phone call telling me we’d scored a trilogy in the New Jedi Order series. That’s how Force Heretic was born.

Dr Lisa: Part of the joy of writing fiction is building new worlds and inventing new characters – people and places we’re curious about and want to explore further. Bearing that in mind, what’s it like to run with existing worlds and existing characters? How do you manage to write in a world as beloved as Star Wars without trampling all over the things fans love most?

Karen: Well, first and foremost, when you’re playing in someone else’s sandbox I believe you absolutely must love their toys … especially when so many many other people love them. You have to play with them respectfully. [SEAN: Yes!] But, by the same token, no two fans ever experience the same story in quite the same way. We all bring our own personal and unique baggage and filters to a story. So it means walking a tightrope – be respectful of the source material, but honour what the story says to you. It means you must accept that you won’t please all of the fans all of the time. And with a passionate fandom, it also means you’ll likely raise hackles and be subjected to some hostile reviews. That’s part of the reality of writing for an established franchise so if you’re not prepared to be lambasted as well as loved, stick to writing your own stories!

As far as writing established characters, well, I think it comes down to knowing them really well. And that’s true whether you’ve invented your own characters or you’re writing characters created by someone else. It’s no different to being a staff scriptwriter, in that respect. It’s your job to know those people and capture them on the page.

Sean: What Karen said. But don’t forget that the Star Wars universe is amazingly enormous now far, far larger than what we saw on the big screen and it’s become so fractal around the edges that there’s tons of room to invent and elaborate within the confines of your story. Some stories are more confined than others: the first Force Unleashed book left me very little room to make stuff up, for instance, since it’s set in the Dark Times between Episodes III and IV and there’s so much we need to keep ambiguous in there (by mandate from above). But all my other books are full of new characters, races, cultures and places that sprang entirely (or at least largely) from my own brain.

One of my favourite pastimes working in this universe is finding loose ends and tying them up – usually by clarifying details that were left vague by the previous authors, or connecting them to other loose ends elsewhere. I particularly loved working in the New Jedi Order series, because all the death and mayhem in that story gave me opportunities to wipe out whole races that were taking up space in the canon, not doing anything. (If you were a fan of the Yevethans and the Ssi-Ruuk, I apologise.)

Dr Angela: What is your first memory of entering the Star Wars universe – i.e. seeing the movie for the first time?

Karen: Well, I think like many many people, the double barrel whammy of the opening sequence still remains a powerful memory: the rebel ship passing overhead amazing, shocking, wonderful, like nothing you’ve ever seen before followed a couple of moments later by the stupendous image of the Empire Star Destroyer following. That was when I knew I was in for the ride of my life.

My other really vivid memory is when we got to the Mos Eisley cantina, and met Han Solo. I leaned over to the person I was with and whispered, ‘Hey, he’s a bit of all right!’  Thus did my love affair with Han Solo begin. :-D

Sean: I can’t remember the first time I saw the movie. Don’t know why, since the second time is intensely vivid. Maybe my young brain was completely overloaded. What I remember most clearly is the peripheral material: the soundtrack, the novelisation, the tie-ins, even the jigsaw puzzles. Maybe that’s because that’s how I engaged with the story over the following years. It wasn’t watchable any other way, since video was a few years off, and there were only so many times I could see it at the cinema (ten, I think) before it left the screens. So while I don’t remember my first entry into the universe, I do remember returning to it over and over again, later.

Dr Lisa: Is there a character in the Star Wars universe that you wish you could hang out with for a while? Or a place you really wish you could visit?

Karen: Alderaan looked absolutely beautiful. I’d go there in a shot. As for the characters … young Obi-Wan was a hoot. And I loved Qui-Gon, too. So wise and at the same time unpretentious. I love his maverick streak.

Sean: I’m an Obi-Wan fan, too. I’d love to write something about his life during the Dark Times (I think we all would). Tatooine reminds me a lot of home – flat, dry and very hot – so I guess I gravitate towards that setting by instinct.

Dr Angela: Is there another franchise you’d like/be willing to write for?

Karen: Well, I’ve written for Stargate, and that was another dream come true. Other than that, I’d have to say no. There are many, many stories that I love to bits, but the urge to write stories for them strikes very rarely.

Sean: And I’ve written (in a very small way) for Doctor Who, for which my obsession is at a whole other level. Since writing for Star Wars I’ve had offers to write in or pitch for other franchises that I wasn’t completely in love with (Transformers, Terminator) and others I do love (Halo, Green Lantern) but simply couldn’t fit into the schedule, and then there are franchises I’ve totally gone for but just missed out on (Battlestar Galactica, Firefly). So yes, I’m absolutely willing, if the right one comes along and the timing pans out. I grew up reading tie-ins; I find the form utterly thrilling and attractive.

Dr Lisa: Wookieepedia has quoted Karen as saying, “I’ve always thought that tie-in novels were professionally produced fanfic – and if they’re not, there’s something wrong.” Is this still your position?

Karen: Yes, it is, because I think to do the story justice you have to be a fan. Now, as a professional writer you might bring a level of skill to the task that isn’t generally found in regular fanfic, a professional writer might have some craft tools and skills that non-professional writers haven’t yet developed or acquired, but for me, tie-in novels are epic fail when the writers don’t love the stories that they’re based on. No matter how well they’re technically executed. I think that’s the common denominator between fanfic and tie-ins love for the source material. After that it’s a question of polish and skill. I do get a bit stroppy when professionals want to look down their noses at writers of fanfic. Yes, there’s some bad fanfic in the wild. There are also some very poorly written published novels. And some fanfic writers are enormously talented. At the end of the day, a good story well told is a good story well told. And that’s all I care about.

Sean: I have nothing to add except that I have nothing to add. Karen said it best!

Dr Angela: What’s the best thing about writing Star Wars novels?

Karen: The sheer delight of doing it. The pinch-me-ness of realising that you’re contributing to the enormous tapestry that is the Star Wars universe. The giggling hysteria that comes with putting words in those characters’ mouths. It’s beyond awesome. And somehow, in a small way, sharing my love of the story with a bunch of other people who love it too.

Sean: Yeah, I love that feeling of community you get while writing the novel, knowing that tens of thousands of people out there will be geeking out on your words in the same way that you’re geeking out on them now. Because it’s a franchise it’s easier to step away from the material and be a fan. That’s one of the great things about working in this field. Original fiction is so damned serious most of the time. And of course we should take it seriously, even when it’s supposed to be fun, because it’s such a large part of who we are. But with Star Wars the happy-dances come much more easily. That’s what keeps us sane through the crushing deadlines (there’s always a downside).

Dr Lisa: What kind of research do you have to do before writing a Star Wars novel? Do you read all the other books in the franchise or are you given a ‘cheat sheet’ that summarises major characters, places, plot points? Do you watch the movies a million times, then drop by to see George at Skywalker Ranch?

Karen: Well, I was focused on the Clone Wars era, and there wasn’t a huge amount written about that. Karen (Traviss) and I were kind of starting in a new area of the story. Plus our books were set specifically within the parameters of the Clone Wars cartoon series, season 1. So I read the scripts and then I rewatched the 3 prequel movies many times, taking notes, and let the ideas percolate from there. I also got my hands on the excellent Star Wars reference books and kept them by my side, so I could get the technical stuff right. Alas, no Skywalker Ranch. :-D

Sean: Wookieepedia is my friend. (I’ve reference it several times already while answering these questions.) It’s impossible to read all the novels now, unless you’re working in a very tightly defined period of history – and even then there are books or other media that will touch on your story in various ways. So I read what I can, dig deep into the fan archives and official encyclopaedias, ask lots of questions of my co-creators (which can include other authors but always comes back to Leland Chee, chief continuity guru at Lucasfilm) and let my mind wander.

Jonathan Strahan pointed out something very important to me while I was struggling with the first page of my first Star Wars book. “You’re not writing fiction,” he said. “You’re writing non-fiction.” That might sound silly, but in terms of mindset and how best to approach the existing material, it’s utterly true. Once I got into my head that I was filling in the gaps between events that, for the purposes of the exercise, had actually happened and were therefore relatively easy to elucidate, the words started to flow.

Dr Angela: What’s the greatest challenge in writing Star Wars novels?

Karen: Simultaneously being aware of fandom’s expectations, while at the same time not allowing yourself to become paralysed by them. Knowing that no matter how hard you try, how well you write, how much blood, sweat and tears you spill in the telling of your story, some people are going to hate it and hate you for writing it. Making peace with that, and telling the story you want to tell in the way you want to tell it anyway. Not letting the fact that it’s Star Wars send you howling into the night. And honouring the legacy that is this amazing, lifechanging story.

Sean: All that, and doing it while groaning under ridiculous deadlines. Maybe I’ve just been unlucky but it always seems to fall out that there’s four weeks to write an entire book, and that’s just hard work, even for someone who likes to write quickly. I’m not implying that this is anyone’s fault; it’s just how things fall out in an organization that has lots of employees and conflicting timelines, and sometimes works with other organizations who endure the same problems. My last three Star Wars novels were computer game tie-ins (the two Force Unleashed novels and the first Old Republic novel, Fatal Alliance) and that produces a whole raft of new complications. There’s an unimaginable (and highly addictive) adrenaline rush to writing four thousand words a day in a genre you love, but it’s also freaking hard work. Maintaining a sense of perspective can be very hard under that kind of stress. Maintaining your health, ditto.

Dr Lisa: Star Wars fans are incredibly enthusiastic at conventions – attending panels, film screenings, and participating in cosplay – so I can only imagine they’d be keen to attend your sessions at cons. What are some of the highlights of interacting with the fans? Any favourite experiences or anecdotes?

Karen: Sadly, I have to say no. I really don’t do many cons. The most fan interaction I have is via mail from readers, and that’s pretty wonderful. I always knew I wouldn’t be writing a typical Star Wars novel. For me, the least interesting aspects of the Star Wars galaxy are the space battles and the fights and all that stuff. My passion is the characters, and their lives and relationships, and the human cost of what happens to them on their journey. I always knew that if I wrote for Star Wars, I’d be writing stories that focused on that, all the while keeping my fingers crossed that I’m not the only one who responds to Star Wars like that. And it turns out I’m not, for which I am profoundly grateful. Which isn’t to say that stories with the battles and space stuff are no good they are. But let me put it this way every time I rewatch Phantom Menace, I fast forward through the podrace, and rewind the great moments between the characters. :-D

Sean: I love conventions and have had some really wonderful experiences with fans. Too many to single out any one in particular – although Comic-Con in 2010 was pretty amazing. Like Karen – like every writer of tie-in fiction, I guess – I also feel that I approach the franchise from my own perspective, one that some people will love and others will hate. I like conflicted characters, characters who could go either way given the slightest incentive, and I tend to veer away from those whose stories are absolutely known. Like Luke and Leia, for instance, or even historical figures like Darth Vader (although I do love him as a secondary player in the Force Unleashed books). I love a good romance, and I do love a stupendous space battle. I love opposites coming together, multiple viewpoints and complex plots. In that sense, I think Fatal Alliance is the best Star Wars novel I’ve ever written, and I’m delighted that the fans have reacted so positively to it. Meeting people who tell me stuff like that is always a joy, but so is hanging out with people who love the franchise as much as I do. Ultimately I don’t care if they like my books or not. Star Wars unites us, even if we can never agree on which movie is our favourite.

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