When new friends learn that I write Star Wars novels, their first question is almost always, “Where do your ideas come from?”
I never know how to answer.
The first time I was invited to write a Star Wars novel, I blurted, “Great! I have some fabulous ideas for a Star Wars novel!” to which the reply was a very polite version of, “That’s nice, dear.”
After signing the Non-Disclosure Agreement, I learned that a team of editors and writers had spent the last year secretly developing a master plot for something called the New Jedi Order — a huge book series with an over-arching plot and many different authors. They had already developed the basic idea and a list of major plot points for the book they wanted me to write. My assignment was to shape those plot points into an outline, then write the book that eventually became Star by Star.
So, when I was offered a chance to write my second Star Wars novel, I thought I knew how it worked. All I would need to do to get started on the story was say yes.
This time, the editorial team at Lucas Licensing and Del Rey needed a standalone book. They were looking for a story that explored how Leia came to realize that her father had not always been the ruthless bas— …er, Sith …Darth Vader. They wanted to show her learning that he had once been a pretty good kid named Anakin Skywalker, and they wanted to do that by having her see him through her grandmother Shmi’s eyes. They thought a good way to do that might be by having Leia find Shmi’s diary. I thought it was probably the only way to do it, since there aren’t a lot of non-Force-sensitive ghosts in Star Wars.
Fortunately, I had just been reading Kevin J. Anderson and Ralph McQuarrie’s The Illustrated Star Wars Universe. I had become entranced with Alderaan’s long lost Killik Colony, and the idea for a painting called Killik Twilight had been kicking around my head. (Yeah, I admit it. I have a thing for bugs.) With that idea as a starting point, building the plot became pretty straightforward. All I had to do was develop a story that revolved around Anakin Skywalker’s lost childhood, Shmi’s diary, and a masterpiece of Alderaanian moss-art. The result was Tatooine Ghost, which was as much fun to write as it was to imagine. (Meaning, I had a lot of fun. Did I mention that I like bug art?)
My next assignment was a paperback series. This time, Shelly and Sue (my editors) knew exactly what they wanted: Books. “Write three of them,” they said. “They can be about anything. Just make sure they have something to do with Star Wars.”
“Really?” I asked. “They can be about anything?”
“Well, it might be nice if you mention blasters and lightsabers and the Force and stuff like that. But, otherwise, yes. The possibilities are pretty open.”
“Could the story be about bugs?” I asked.
“Uh . . .” they replied.
“Great!” I said. “Because I’ve got this cool idea about a long-lost colony of Killiks.”
“Oh…” they said. “Do you think maybe you could work in some Jedi?”
“Sure,” I said. “How about some Jedi who sort of become bugs?”
And that’s how the Dark Nest Trilogy came about.
The next time, my editors were a little more careful to exterminate my interest in bugs. I was just finishing up the third book of the Dark Nest Trilogy when I received an e-mail one Sunday afternoon, soliciting non-bug ideas for a new nine-book series. (Yes, writers and editors work Sundays. It’s a day, isn’t it?)
I saw the hand of the Force behind this. By this time, I had been working with Jacen Solo for three books, trying to figure out exactly what the blazes had happened to him on that five-year journey he had undertaken to learn the many ways of the Force. And I was coming to some pretty dark conclusions.
Then the e-mail soliciting ideas arrived, and the answer became clear in my head. Vergere must have been Sith. (Well, okay, I had secretly begun to suspect that much earlier, perhaps even way back in the NJO. But it could no longer be denied.) Vergere was a Sith. That was why she had corrupted Jacen with her nonsense about “the shameful secret of the Jedi” and “there is no dark side.” (Page 167 for those in the know.)[ph1] Because everything she told Jacen was a lie.
Vergere was a Sith.
Along with the silly [LF2] notion that Boba Fett is best as a ruthless killer, this single idea has made me, to a very vocal slice of readers, the undisputed arch-villain of the Expanded Universe. So, I want to be clear about my position: If you haven’t read Matt Stover’s Star Wars books, you are missing some of the best, most provocative, thoughtful space opera in print. In my not-so-humble opinion, lit students everywhere ought to be reading Traitor and the Revenge of the Sith novelization alongside The Stranger, Heart of Darkness, and Brave New World.
Still, I don’t buy much of what is implied about the Force in Traitor. I believe that the Force is more of a mythic element than a psychological one, that its relevance is more collective than personal. Apparently, two Star Wars authors have different views of the Force. Imagine that.
(And yes, I realize that those who know Jung well enough can argue that the mythic is psychological and the collective personal. Those who know Jung well enough can argue pretty much anything.)
But the most important thing about the “Vergere was a Sith” idea had nothing to do with Force-philosophy. The important thing was that the editors liked it.
They liked it a lot. (Maybe because it didn’t mention bugs.)
In any case, by the end of the week, the idea of Jacen becoming a Sith had been approved as the core idea of a nine-book series that would become Legacy of the Force. A few months later (after I had researched and written the twenty-seven page Vergere Compendium mentioned in Pablo Hidalgo’s Reader’s Companion), we had our first face-to-face story meeting at Big Rock Ranch, and we — the writers and editors and a dozen other folks — began to develop plot points for the series.
So, that’s how Legacy of the Force came to be. I’m not sure how the idea arose for the next nine-book series: Fate of the Jedi. I simply received an email telling me that Del Rey and Lucas Licensing wanted to do another nine-book series, this time with a Luke-and-Ben odyssey as the starting point. They wanted me to write three of the books, just like with Legacy of the Force. Aaron Allston was already in, and Christie Golden became the third writer.
At this point, it’s important to understand something about fiction writers. We generally work alone in dark little closets, and when we venture out to the water cooler, there’s usually no one there to talk to. So, when an editor swoops in and offers you a free trip to California and a chance to hang out with a couple of other writers, you put on a clean shirt and hitch a ride to the airport.
So it was that I soon found myself at a hotel in San Francisco, with fellow authors Aaron Allston and Christie Golden and no editors in sight. We gathered in the pub — as authors often do when adults aren’t looking — and the conversation soon turned to how we were going to flesh out the basic premise of the series. Aaron kind of smiled and got this gleam in his eye, then he looked around and suggested we find a quiet place to talk.
Now, we all contributed a few tidbits over cocktails — it was one of the most productive brainstorming sessions I’ve ever attended. But to this day, I remain convinced that Aaron had thought out the entire series before he ever boarded a plane — especially the mysterious Force-entity who eventually became Abeloth. In any case, his ideas were brilliant, and when we met with the editors the next morning, it was easy to sell Aaron’s concept as the basic foundation of what would become the Fate of the Jedi series. About all we had to add the next day was Christie’s wonderful idea that Ben’s first love should be a Sith teenager.
With that, the Fate of the Jedi series was born.
That brings us almost to current day, because the next project was my most recent one: Star Wars: Crucible. I freely admit it: this one scared me.
Not at first, though. When I read the e-mail describing what my editors wanted — a sort of “last hurrah/passing of the torch” story — my first reaction was to be flattered. This was clearly going to be a very important book to the Expanded Universe and a tricky one to write. I took it as a compliment that they had asked me to do it.
Then I began to think about actually plotting the thing. A “last hurrah” for the Big Three? Nobody on the editorial team wanted to see any of these major characters die — and neither did I. I’d already been assigned to write the deaths of both Anakin and Jacen Solo, giving me a reputation as the “hit man of the EU.” So, adding to that toll might have been a deal-breaker for me. I didn’t want to do it. Thankfully, no one was asking.
But, the outcome of the story still needed to stick. Because of where the EU seemed to be headed at the time we were brainstorming, the results of the book needed to be more or less permanent. The “more or less” part was a little hazy. But it seemed clear that whatever happened in the book, it should not be undone easily. “Make it a big sendoff,” my editors said.
So, I thought big. And, because over-thinking is what I do best, I came up with an idea I called “mythic elevation.”
My editors suggested they’d like something a little less “elevated.” And definitely not that weird. To attract new readers, the story needed to hit familiar touchstones for fans of the first three movies — familiar, but new — a last big adventure set forty years after Return of the Jedi. After a few more tries, we finally arrived at a concept deemed “close enough.”
By now, I could see that I was scaring them, so I took the story and ran. Crucible is exactly the kind of book I love to write, fast-paced and rollicking, filled with action and spectacle. But it’s also a book that relies on epiphany and introspection to deliver the climax, a book with a final punch designed to be as much spiritual as physical.
As I approached the end of the first draft, I started to worry that I was taking the spiritual elements too far. My chest would tighten and my gut would clench, and I began to back off.
Fortunately, I have always been graced with incredible lead editors in my Star Wars work. The team at Lucas Licensing has changed a little bit over the last couple of years, but “incredible” remains as appropriate now as it ever was. After reading my draft, Shelly (at Del Rey) gently urged that I lose some boring scenes — and flat-out ordered me to cut the gruesome stuff (body-stakes sabacc can get out of control very quickly). Meanwhile, Jennifer (at Lucasfilm) was pushing me back toward the outer limits of the outline, noting where the emotional impact needed to be heightened or the description sharpened, pointing out where I was treading too carefully, and generally just encouraging me to swing for the fences. Shelly and Jennifer are a remarkable team, and I’m grateful for all they contributed.
And now, I’m back where I started: amazed that I had the chance to write about the Big Three’s latest adventure, one which just might be their “last hurrah” together. I love writing these characters, and — as always — it was an honor to further their story. I hope Star Wars fans will have as much fun reading Crucible as I had writing it.