May the 4th Be With You!
If you're not a Star Wars fan, you may be scratching your head...but if you live and breathe the Force, you already know that today is Star Wars Day.
To celebrate this momentous occasion, we invited three writers who were instrumental in creating the Expanded Universe found in the dozens of popular Star Wars books, to contribute a NOOK Blog post.
Aaron Allston, Christie Golden and Troy Denning have teamed up to write the bestselling Fate of the Jedi series, which explores the Jedi world beyond the plots of the Star Wars films. In today’s blog post, they explain the process of collaborating on a wide-ranging book series. As Troy explains, the process is “more a group marathon than a relay race.”
Now I'll turn this post over to Aaron Allston, the writer of the first book in the series, Outcast.
Aaron Allston: Since 2002, I’ve written for the three multi-author Star Wars novel series, and had the honor of writing the first novels for two of them — Legacy of the Force and Fate of the Jedi. But this is not just an honor — starting a major new series presents challenges to the writer not found in standalone books.
You have to introduce, or at least hint at, themes that will be present throughout the series. With Fate of the Jedi, some of those themes included:
- Anxiety about the future of the Jedi Order in an unfriendly political environment and in the face of a new, unknown enemy
- A return to an adventuresome feel after the grimness of Legacy of the Force
- Political turmoil that oculd could ultimately change the nature of the Galactic Alliance and the Empire
- Coming of age — the Jedi Order having to function without its father figure, Luke Skywalker, and Ben transitioning from hyper-competent teenager to young man
At the end of the book, the problematic underworld cult on Dorin is straightened out and the Jedi achieve a minor victory in their new struggles with the government. That’s two subplots put to bed, but all the others are still in play.
Another task of the first novel in the series involves introducing or reintroducing characters who will be important to the series. I caught a break there: While I did need to reintroduce many characters, most of them were familiar to Expanded Universe readers and didn’t require much updating. And Troy, Christie and I had previously agreed that three of the most important new characters/groups — Vestara, Abeloth, and the Lost Tribe of the Sith — should be introduced in later novels. So I merely hinted at Abeloth and didn’t have to do a lick of work with Vestara or the Sith.
So Outcast set the ball in motion — or perhaps “avalanche” would be a better analogy. And the avalanche headed straight for Christie Golden.
Thank goodness I was bracketed by two of the best writers in the field, who are now far from strangers, and thank goodness for Shelly Shapiro, my editor, Sue Rostini over at Lucasfilms, and Leland Chee, the keeper Keeper of the Holocron. Everyone made me feel very welcome, was enthusiastic about my participation, and was more than eager to help when I needed information.
Being “the one in the middle” had pluses and minuses. On the plus side, I was able to ask Aaron to set up some things for me to tackle in my books, and I could tell Troy where I was thinking of going when I handed the “baton” off to him. On the negative side, I never had the option of getting to start something completely on my own, or finish it on my own. Hmm, I wonder if Aaron and Troy think having to start and finish a major series was a plus or a minus!
I was the very lucky one who got to introduce an entire Sith culture to the world of Star Wars, with the Lost Tribe, and particularly Vestara Khai. While all three authors had agreed earlier that we wanted to have Ben involved with a Sith girl, I got to really shape her personality and appearance, and the curiously cooperative nature of the Lost Tribe. I also got to introduce Wynn Dorvan. Fun fact and an example of the back and forth that went on: Dorvan was created solely as a throwaway character. Troy had requested that I give Daala’s “assistant” a pair of chitliks. So I did—and I am sure there is or will be a story behind why Dorvan now only has one of those chitliks, Pocket. And of course, readers know that Dorvan really took on a life and character of his own. I’m surprised and pleased that he became a fan favorite. On the journalist side, I created both sleemo Javis Tyrr and gutsy, honest journalist Madhi Vaandt.
I gave Troy a little present with Allana’s nexu. Troy said quite plainly, “You can’t give Allana a nexu cub in one book and not have me run with it in mine!” I enjoyed seeing the development of Anji throughout the series, as I did with Vestara and Dorvan.
I found it challenging to write a book that A) pleased readers, B) felt like a solid continuation of what Aaron had done before and C) also felt like something had been started and completed within the covers of each book. I did my best to continue threads Aaron introduced, but often had to choose what would work within the parameters of each of mine as well. Readers will notice that one thread introduced in Outcast was not really addressed at all in Omen, but got a great deal of screen time (and was wrapped up) in Ascension. The reason for that was because it fit well in one place, and not so well in another.
While a lot of threads got wrapped up in appropriate places during the series, and many of them in Ascension, Troy did have the rather daunting task of finishing up the whole thing, and I purposefully left him some juicy storylines to wrap up . . .
I’ve worked on three multi-author Star Wars series, two of them from the initial concept, and it’s fair to say they’re more a group marathon than a relay race. We start with a big planning session, where the authors, editors, and various marketing, continuity, and management people from Del Rey and Lucasfilm Licensing gather to hash out a story- arc for the series. That’s really just a big, fun brainstorming session where we develop ideas and lay out a skeleton of plot-points for each book in the series. The important thing to understand about the planning session is that it’s a free- wheeling affair, with everyone feeding ideas into the hopper. Although we know the order of the authors’ rotation at this stage — that’s usually dictated by schedule or marketing concerns — no one is seriously concerned about staking claim to particular ideas. Writer One may suggest a plot point that ends up in Writer Two’s book, or a marketing director may toss out an idea that an editor puts in Writer Three’s book. By the time we end the meeting, we have a list of plot points for each book, and it would be very surprising if anyone could remember who generated which ideas. I would be even more surprised if any of us cared. By that point, the story arc has become a group child, and there’s a little bit of everyone in it.
After the planning session, the writers return home with their list of plot points and write outlines for the first three books. And — because one of the goals for a series like this is to publish in three years instead of nine — we do this simultaneously. So, yes, while Aaron was writing the outline for Outcast, Christie was writing the outline for Omen, and I was writing the outline for Abyss. We were able to do this because we were relatively fresh from that face-to-face planning session and are very much on the same page. But, of course, there are always subtle differences of interpretation that grow apparent once the outline is finished, and new (and better) ideas that occur to each writer as they work.
The outlines are submitted to the editors and circulated among the writers. Everyone makes comments, looking for inconsistencies and opportunities to improve the story, and just generally trying to make sure that we’re all still on the same page. Then the outlines are revised, and the writers start writing our books.
And this is where the rotation begins to grow challenging. There’s an amazing amount of back and forth as we write — literally thousands of emails of “what-ifs” and “can you foreshadow this” and “wouldn’t it be neat ifs?” To a great extent, all of the writers work back and forth to accommodate each other, adjusting scenes, tweaking characters, sometimes even adding or deleting whole chapters or subplots. But, eventually, the deadlines arrive, the manuscripts start coming in, and things get interesting.
No matter how carefully we plan, no matter how often the writers communicate, the simple fact remains that our minds work differently — and it shows in our writing. A manuscript will arrive that does exactly what the author proposed in his/her outline, and which has been adjusted in exactly the ways discussed in subsequent emails, and it will still be full of surprises — just subtle differences of interpretation, or little-but-great ideas, or even subplots the writer thought would be self-contained, but which actually need to be stretched over two -or -three books.
Often, a lot of these little surprises can be cleaned- up in manuscript revision, and they are. But some can’t be — at least not in time to get the book into production. Besides, more often than not, a lot of these surprises are good surprises. They’re little gems you want to keep and polish, and it becomes the job of the next writer down the line to set them in the rest of the story. Obviously, there are going to be a few more of these for the third writer in the rotation than for the second or first, and coming last can begin to feel like you’ve got an avalanche of great ideas tumbling down on you.
Fortunately, the avalanche doesn’t build unabated throughout the whole series. Each time we outline a new trio of books, we need to take a “virtual breath” and evaluate. If we’re lucky, that happens when the writers and editors are at a convention together, and we can do it around a conference table. But even if we can’t, it occurs naturally as each writer begins his/her next outline; the process itself gives us a chance to regroup. The avalanche may still be building as we move into the next trio of books, but at least it feels like it’s under control.
Still, by the time Writer Three is drafting the last book in the series, that avalanche has grown larger than ever. It’s coming fast and heavy, and by then it’s unclear whether he’s riding the avalanche or getting run over by it. In addition to the normal surprises, he’s trying to wrap up all of the subplots in this series — subplots that have sometimes drifted in marvelous but unexpected directions. He has to to bring the primary plot — a plot that has been building for eight books — to a satisfying, action-packed, epic conclusion.
And then there’s the final challenge: this isn’t just the end of a nine-book series. This is Star Wars, so this book needs to do more than close the door on one era of the Expanded Universe. It needs to draw readers through that door and leave them standing on a whole new threshold, looking out on a galaxy filled with the potential for dozens of new kinds of story.
Honestly, I can't wait to see where the Expanded Universe goes from here.
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