About a year ago, Scholastic approached me with one of those offers you can’t refuse.
By then we knew Season Four of The Clone Wars would conclude with the return of Darth Maul, last seen tumbling -- in halves, no less -- into a pit on Naboo. But we didn’t know the tale would continue with Maul’s rescue by Savage Opress and his rematch with Obi-Wan Kenobi. Nor did we know Season Five would give us a four-episode arc in which Maul rallied the galactic underworld, recruiting Black Sun, Death Watch, the Hutts, and other criminals to his banner.
Scholastic’s question: Did I want to write a young-adult novelization of those episodes?
The answer was obvious, and that was the birth of the just-released Darth Maul: Shadow Conspiracy. Writing it was enormous fun -- as well as a reminder that while TV scripts and novels are both wonderful things, they’re very different animals.
But at the time, all I could think was: Can I pull this off?
For reasons beyond anybody’s control, I’d have about three weeks to read the relevant scripts, create an outline for Shadow Conspiracy, and write a 30,000-word book. That was daunting, to say the least. But Lucasfilm and Scholastic pledged to help with anything I’d need, and I knew I could work very quickly once I had a fully fledged outline -- I’d recently written a Transformers novel with my friend and collaborator Ryder Windham, as well as the opening novel in my own forthcoming series for HarperCollins, The Jupiter Pirates. (The lesson for all you aspiring writers: Work hard on the outline. It makes everything else so much easier.)
Shadow Conspiracy began with Ryder, too: He shared the manuscript of his just-completed The Wrath of Darth Maul, a retelling of Maul’s story that included his Clone Wars resurrection. As always, Ryder’s book was rich in characterization and description. It set a high bar, and I immediately decided Shadow Conspiracy should feel like a sequel -- which, after all, it was.
I wasn’t new to adapting Clone Wars arcs -- in 2010, I wrote Bounty Hunter: Boba Fett, a novelization of Boba Fett’s Season Two return. Still, this would be a very different book. Bounty Hunter was short and spare, almost entirely dialogue and action, but Shadow Conspiracy would be much longer. On the one hand, this meant I could delve into descriptions and the characters’ thoughts, something every writer enjoys. On the other hand, I had to do those things -- if I simply retold Maul’s story from the scripts, I wouldn’t have enough material.
Fortunately, working on Clone Wars books had taught me there’s a lot more to the show than just the scripts. Take “Duchess of Mandalore,” the Season Two episode in which Satine must evade Death Watch assassins on Coruscant. I read that script while working on the second Clone Wars Visual Guide, then was surprised to see the actual episode play like a classic film noir, with Obi-Wan as a lightsaber-wielding Sam Spade. The lesson, for me, was that this kind of storytelling is a collaboration -- the script drives the story, yes, but the story also emerges from character designs, lighting, camera angles, and pacing. It’s a collaborative effort, and the script is just the starting point.
I couldn’t watch the Maul episodes, which were still in production. But Lucasfilm’s Leland Chee and Joanne Chan Taylor graciously agreed to act as my eyes and ears: I’d ask them questions, which they’d bring to Lucasfilm Animation for answers. My list of questions was ridiculously long, ranging from general queries such as “What’s the look/lighting/mood in the cargo-ship hold?” to yes/no queries such as “Are the Black Sun crime lords’ thrones set around a table?”
I knew my adaptation wouldn’t be able to capture some things, such as the pacing and feel of the fight scenes. In scripts the accounts of such showdowns are essentially placeholders. Remember Season Four’s “Bounty,” in which Asajj Ventress helps protect an underground train on Quarzite? That script has crackling dialogue and rich characterization, but its fight scenes are stripped-down summaries -- they don’t convey the spooky stealth of the Kage warriors, the moody murk of the darkened train, or the jolt of seeing C-21 Highsinger explode into action. With fight scenes, the script’s job is to create the framework for the kind of collaborative visual storytelling discussed above.
The same was true with the lightsaber showdowns in the Darth Maul arc -- nothing in the script prepared me for Pre Vizsla throwing everything but the Mandalorian kitchen sink at Maul in “Shades of Reason,” for the chilling close-up of a triumphant Maul igniting the Darksaber after besting Vizsla, or for Darth Sidious’s double-saber acrobatics in “The Lawless.”
Production schedules also let the crew of The Clone Wars keep refining the scripts after work had to stop on the print adaptation, leading to some small but important differences between what you read on the page and what you saw on the screen. For the adaptation, Lucasfilm shared notes from Pablo Hidalgo and supervising director Dave Filoni about Satine’s past, including the startling fact that Satine and Bo-Katan were sisters. Originally, that relationship wasn’t going to be revealed on-screen -- I cut it from the book, with the exception of one indirect reference, and was thrilled to see it revealed after all. Satine’s last words to Obi-Wan were revised to be far more emotional on-screen than on the page. And the biggest change was Sidious’ final line to Maul, which turned an ambiguous ending into a jaw-dropping cliffhanger.
Hey, I’m in good company: Read the novelization of A New Hope and you’ll witness Darth Vader strangling General Tagge and Blue 5 -- a.k.a. Luke Skywalker -- making a first unsuccessful run down the Death Star trench. And I had some storytelling tools The Clone Wars crew didn’t -- most notably, I could go inside the characters’ heads, revealing their thoughts and delving into their pasts.
Take the scene in “The Lawless” where Obi-Wan learns Satine is in mortal danger, and knows neither Yoda nor the Senate will do much to help. That’s an enormously rich moment in terms of Obi-Wan’s history, his feelings about Satine, and his relationship with Yoda, just for starters -- and being able to explore what Obi-Wan was thinking excited me both as a writer and as a lifelong Star Wars fan.
Along the same lines, I wrote a brief scene in which Death Watch’s Pre Vizsla ponders his next move after encountering Maul and Savage. I needed to write that scene to give readers the backstory of Vizsla and his struggle against Satine’s rule. But I wanted to write it because Vizsla’s an intriguing character whose head struck me as an interesting place to explore. So while Vizsla fumed and schemed, I had him ignite the Darksaber, his ancient, equally intriguing weapon.
I also crafted a brief scene between Obi-Wan and Anakin in which Obi-Wan borrows the Twilight. I added it because I wanted to show how Obi-Wan winds up with the battered freighter, but also because the relationship between those characters is so deep and complex. The Clone Wars has often showed us Anakin disobeying the Jedi Council to follow his reckless heart; here, Obi-Wan is the disobedient one rushing off into danger.
And, well, there was a moment in the scripts where Embo attacks Maul with his rather wonderful hat. As a writer and fan, don’t you just have to know Maul’s reaction to that?
Going into the characters’ heads also let me weave references to other Expanded Universe stories and lore into Shadow Conspiracy. Such references need to be added sparingly, and in service of the story, the characters, or ideally both -- there are always new Star Wars fans, and references to other stories should feel like an opportunity for further exploration, not an intimidating quiz.
But that left me with plenty of opportunities. In reading Shadow Conspiracy, you’ll revisit Maul’s childhood training on Mustafar and his earlier missions against Black Sun. You’ll get a peek inside the devious mind of Jabba the Hutt. And there are other revelations about Satine’s family, ones I think make Mandalorian history even deeper and richer.
And OK, for you hardcore fans, there’s the second half of an Easter egg that’s half-retcon and half-inside joke dating back to the special editions of the classic trilogy. It’s a mildly insane little project that I began in a previous book. First person to figure it out gets a signed copy of Shadow Conspiracy, as well as the deepest bow I’m capable of.
What does Sidious have in mind for Darth Maul? What lies ahead for Bo-Katan, Korkie, and the other members of the Kryze extended family? Will the Republic invade Mandalore? Will Death Watch resist that effort or aid it? I don’t know -- like you, I’m hoping Dave Filoni & co. tell those stories and more in future Clone Wars seasons.