I’ve had to re-jig this resource because the plug-in I was using started causing problems (not displaying, basically) and it appeared it was no longer being supported after upgrades to the web publishing software I use. So when in doubt, go back to to the clockwork version, that’s what I say. I’ve simply extracted the old FAQ text and cut’n’pasted it in. It might be clunky, but at least it isn’t going to vanish on me in the future.
Please note that as of August 22 2016, this is a temporary page to solve the display issue, and when I have time next week, I’ll sort this out into a list with links to answers so that you don’t have to burn out your scroll button.
So, answers to your most commonly-asked questions...
Q. What's this "I don't read/ play games/ etc" thing about? (Definitive answer.)
So some folks accept my creative process - that I absolutely have to stay one side of the consumer/creator line or the other - even if they don’t understand it, and some refuse to accept it can possibly be. It really pisses some people off that I volunteer the information that I don’t read novels or play games*, as if they can even know from what I write that I don’t, or as if it’s somehow part of the deal the writer has with audience. Because it isn’t. My only deal with you is that I give you the best possible audience experience in everything I do, and how I achieve that is my business alone.
But how can I explain this in practice? I can either say: “Well, you wouldn’t guess from my work that I don’t read/ play games/ whatever if I hadn’t bothered to tell you, so face aft and salute...” Or I can look for a realtime example and try to convey just what a critical line this is for me, and why it has to be there. An editor I know would call it a meta thing. I’d say it’s a cognitive issue. But when I need a vivid example, I can never recall one.
But I had a perfect example this morning. A worrying one, too.
I can’t tell you what the scene is, obviously, because the book isn’t done. But I had a scene playing out in my head, and it was heavy stuff. And then I saw that scene in the context of the game, actually playing the game for a moment, with all the expectations and in-jokes. I’d stepped across that forbidden line. And the scene made me laugh my arse off.
But it wasn’t funny at all. In fact, it was one of the most potentially harrowing events I’ve written. It was horrible. I had to shove myself back across that line where the story has to be born, and use my grounding technique: imagine this is a real world, happening to real people, and imagine what’s going on their minds as this is happening to them. Imagine you heard it on the news. Imagine how much it would upset you as a normal human being hearing something awful like that. And then I was back in the world where I have to operate creatively: where I have to live through those fictional events as if the characters are real, living, breathing, feeling, human beings, and experience what they experience, and describe it.
Because if I don’t feel it that intensely, then I can’t convey that to you as vividly as I do. For you to feel it through the filter of paper or pixels or game, then it has to be a high concentration of reality and feeling to make it into your mind and put you in the character’s moment. This is how I can make you laugh or cry or believe for a while that you’re pinned down under heavy fire.
I can’t do that if I step outside into the external world where it’s just fiction that can be put down and forgotten.
Writing for me is like having a self-generated waking dream or nightmare, overlaid with dissociating from my own personality. I opt to step into that state, that out-of-body and out-of-psyche thing. I opt to lie to my conscious mind, the bit that’s actually me, and make my brain believe that I’m someone else, thinking someone else’s thoughts, and having things really happen to me. Like a dream - or nightmare - you know it’s unreal at an intellectual level, but you still wake up sweating and scared, and take a while to shake off that feeling. I have to live that event and then come back and tell you exactly what it’s like so that you can live it too.
So you can see that for me, writing isn’t just words on a page, or an actor reading lines, or an exquisitely realistic cinematic playing out. That’s the output, the manifestation. It’s just a way to convey what I felt on behalf of a character who doesn’t exist outside of a strange unspoken agreement between you and me to believe they’re real for a few hours. This is why I prefer to use the word storytelling. Or reporting, because that's what I still am at my core: a reporter. The real act of writing, of creation, is in my endocrine system, in my brain chemistry, in the spark that leaps across the synaptic gap and makes me sweat when I become - very briefly - someone who’s facing the end of their world.
And then I shake it off and I’m me again. If that wall wasn’t there, my work wouldn’t be what it is. It would be superficial and thin, all style, no substance. It has to come from my gut, and this is the only way I know to consistently walk through into that parallel world.
(* The only exception is comics, and even then I have to steer well clear of the subject areas I work in. In terms of the medium, my ability to process it was laid down in my very early childhood, and long term memory and recollection of emotion seems to be “ring fenced” from recent memory.)
Q. Will you look at my story and tell me if it's any good?
I don't have the time, and even if I was any good at book doctoring (as it's known) I'd have to charge for it. And boy, would I be expensive. If you want an opinion on your writing, you have two options: the free one is to join a workshop like Critters online, which has helped many a writer over the years, and the paying one is to ask a professional who does those things for a living.
All kinds of people offer these assessment services, and not all of them are competent or kosher, so writer beware, as they say. (Check out the SFWA site for scam warnings.) I still think that the best way to test a book is to have a group of callous friends (there is such a breed) who like reading generally and will plough through your stuff and tell you exactly what they think, no sugar-coating. Kindness isn't helpful to writers. You're aiming at readers. That's whose raw opinion matters.
This is why I say contact a proper book doctor like John Jarrold. Disclosure: I don't get any fee or freebies for directing people to his site. I don't have any link with John whatsoever, although I do know him and he's a nice, sensible bloke. I just feel confident enough that an editor of his experience (and he's an agent now too) will steer you right, and he's an editor to the core, not a wannabe writer. He'll give you the straight truth on how sellable you are.
Now for YMMV country. What follows is my subjective opinion, based on my experience and the experience of writer friends. We do compare notes, and sometimes what we find doesn't match up with the textbook advice given to would-be writers.
If you're still planning to submit books to traditional publishers, then your work will have to appeal to an editor, and the difference between editors and actual readers can be as wide as the difference between film critics who trash a movie and cinema audiences who make it break box office records. (Or vice versa – critically-acclaimed movies have tanked, as have many books that editors have adored.) But if you're planning to do what increasing numbers of writers are doing these days and publish yourself via Kindle or other platforms, reader reaction is paramount, and your money would be better spent on hiring a copy editor to ensure your book is as free of errors as possible.
Some writers offer critiques as a service, but my personal view is that you need an editor to do it, and I mean an editor who just wants to look at the story from a reader perspective, not a wannabe writer who's paying the bills by editing while they write their Great American/ British/ Whatever Novel. You can't tell which they are until it's too late, unfortunately. And yes, this may well sound unfair, but over the years I've perceived a difference in judgement between editors who just love reading and editors who actually wish they were doing your job. Some of the latter can get quite destructive as a result. Ask a writer – or an editor who wishes they were a writer – and you'll get how they would have written it, and that's not the best way to polish your own personal style. (Plus the fact that the really successful writers whose opinions you probably want rarely have time to do it.)
I'm going to be really subversive and add this thought. Do you actually need an editor? I don't mean a copy editor, whose detached eye should (but often doesn't, alas) spot the basic mechanical errors before they make it onto the page. A good copy editor is worth their weight in Ferrero Rocher. I mean a developmental editor, the kind who does the big picture stuff and tells you what story you should be telling and how you should tell it. Painters, musicians, potters, and pretty well any other creatives you can think of don't rely on the approval of a non-creative middleman to tell them how to do their job. They just exercise their own judgement, do their thing, and see how their audience reacts. Only writers have been schooled to believe they can't do anything without an editor.
So I question that. Developmental editing – although increasingly rare in publishing houses these days, because most editors are actually doing project management to get the book through the production process – hasn't saved the world from what many regard as badly told, badly written books. Personally, I don't think there's an objective definition of a bad book, and a good book is any book that the reader enjoys. But I mention it just to ask you to consider if you might be better off telling your own story the way you want to tell it and market-testing directly on readers via self-publishing. If it sells like crazy, great. A publisher will see that and probably want a slice of the action, and as you hold the rights, you can sell it to them if you like. But if it's doing that well without them, you don't need them anyway...
(Updated/ revised 25/12/15)
Q. How would you have wrapped up Imperial Commando #2 if you hadn't pulled out of it?
I'm just an ordinary civilian like you in SW terms now, so what follows has no validity and it isn't spoilers. It's just stuff that was in my notebook. I'm posting it because almost everyone who mails me now about Star Wars wants to know how the final Commando book would have turned out. Well, it would have been artificially packed with thread resolutions. for a start, because the Commando series was based on the old canon and so originally designed to run a lot longer. So I would have had to tie up a lot of things prematurely in a final book - still in the old canon, but not quite where the book would have gone under normal circumstances.
Also, there's no guarantee that this would have been the shape of the final book. When I write, I think I know roughly where the characters are heading, but they often surprise me. I always follow where they lead, so they might well have gone off on another tangent. But, for what it's worth, these are the bullet points, in no particular order. I hope it gives you some closure. If you don't like the way it ended, then you have the comfort that it never happened anyway.
Jusik has to rub Arla’s memory to enable her to cope with her trauma. Afterwards, she doesn’t remember being Arla Fett or what happened to her family, but she knows who she is – she just doesn’t feel the pain of memory. Jusik marries her.
Skirata and Altis team up, and the Nulls help Altis fake his own death to escape. Scout is adopted by Gilamar and Uthan, but she remains a Jedi with Altis’s sect.
Skirata and Ny marry, as do Gilamar and Uthan.
Maze and Zey (unrubbed memory) go off and become the Starsky and Hutch of the galaxy with Altis, along with Kina Ha. (Also unrubbed – Skirata reaches some kind of peace with at least some Kaminoans.)
Uthan perfects the treatment to stop the clones’ accelerated aging.
Darman comes back, kidnaps Kad, and goes on the run. Niner deserts and joins the clan at Kyrimorut.
The Death Watch find out that Gilamar killed Priest, and go hunting for Skirata’s clan.
Rede turns out to be a loyal and not-all-that-naive trooper and Skirata is forced to kill him to save the others, an act that haunts him for the rest of his life.
The clan is forced to flee off-planet in a ba’slan shev’la (strategic disappearance) to evade the Empire.
Darman shows up again with Kad and joins them as they disappear.
LONG TERM: my three Legacy of the Force books – Bloodlines, Sacrifice, and Revelation – are set roughly sixty years later, and feature some of the characters from the Commando books. So between the plot points listed above and the material in those novels, you can work out a fair bit about what happened.
This answer is a compilation of three of my blog entries between August and December 2009. For the sake of accuracy, I've just pasted them in full and in chronological order, so make sure you read through to the end of the page. The bottom line is that 501st was my last Star Wars novel, period, not just my last Commando book. I pulled out in December 2009 because of disputes with the publisher over payment, among other things. The series itself was brought to a premature end by changes in official canon that were beyond my control. If you want to read more of my stuff, you'll have to venture beyond the SW wire. Try it. There's a whole world out there .
Please also be aware of one basic fact - all writers for a franchise have to follow official canon. You can't go off and do your own thing, or else the book won't get approved and printed. It's that simple. So please don't keep asking me to carry on in the old canon, because I'm just not allowed to.
August 8 2009.
It's been a hectic year so far here at the Traviss word factory, but you've probably already worked that out from my very infrequent blogs. Sorry about that. I do, however, have a good excuse; I've been working on lots of new stuff.
That sounds cryptic, I know, but the nature of this business is that you can't always say what you're working on for commercial confidentiality reasons. For example, it'll be nearly a year before one of my current gigs goes public. Until then, I'll just have to jump up and down on my seat in stifled glee. I break a lot of office chairs that way.
Anyway, let me get to the point of this blog. I've been receiving mail from Star Wars fans who have bought the new visual guide to the second season of the Clone Wars TV cartoon, and have been perplexed by detail in it. They've noticed changes in canon. They're mailing me to ask what's going on because it appears to affect areas that my novels deal with. I admit I didn't know there was a guide coming out this early, let alone what would be revealed in it. But now that it has, and you're asking me what's happened, it would be naive to stall you when you have the book in front in you, and pretty rude to ignore you.
I can't discuss the canon issues because of the standard non-disclosure agreement that all writers sign. I'm not even going to discuss the ones that are public now, and I know little of the full detail anyway. So please don't ask me. All I can say is that I was given enough of the detail in January to realise that changes in continuity were such that I wouldn't be able to carry on as originally planned with the storylines you were expecting to see continued in my books. It would have required a lot more than routine retcon.
The only solution I could think of that could accommodate the changes was a complete reboot, and I seriously considered doing that. But starting over, when I had so many other books on my plate? The knock-on effect on my other work was a problem, because most of my income doesn't come from Star Wars. And then there was the risk of alienating readers. Pulling the rug from under them after so many books - that wouldn't go down well, and "I was only following orders" doesn't appease anybody these days.
The canon is beyond my control, because that's the very nature of tie-in work. But that still left me with some personal choices I had to make. I could try to make the massive retcons. Or I could switch to different SW books that weren't affected by these changes. Or I could decide to call it a day - I had a great run, but I had an increasing amount of non-SW work to get on with that was more important to my business.
In the end, the only rational decision I could take was to make Imperial Commando #2 my last book for Star Wars. I'm sorry I had to do that, and it wasn't a decision I took lightly or even quickly, so bear with me while I explain.
Obviously, in business, there are always multiple reasons behind any decision. Some of my influencing factors were business ones about contractual matters, but that's dull and of no interest to the customer. Let's stick to what concerns you, which is the story.
Rather than switch to vastly altered storylines in which most of the characters whose lives you've been following for the last five years would never have existed, or move across to other SW areas, I decided this was a natural point at which to make the break. I've never given up on anything easily, and I knew it would disappoint my readers, so you can rest assured that I spent a lot of time trying to find ways to make the canon work in the longer term. But it's a circle I can't square. Maybe someone else can, but I can't. My specialty - what companies hire me for - is to create substantial military/political series with long character arcs in an increasingly detailed world. That kind of product doesn't lend itself to quick fixes or radical changes mid-stream.
My business needs to be planned several years ahead, and I allow for a degree of unexpected change. When I'm offered a project, I have to ask myself not only if it excites and inspires me, and if the team is solid, but also whether it makes economic sense, and what impact it'll have on the rest of my work portfolio. It has to tick all the boxes. I work for a number of publishers on different franchises, as well as on my creator-owned fiction, so there's a limit to how much uncertainty and change my schedule can accommodate before other projects start to suffer from the knock-on effect.
So I'm now concentrating my focus on my work for other franchises and my own new military series. Many of you already realise that I'm heavily committed to Gears of War (why yes, I am the Chainsaw Queen, thank you for noticing...) and I'm also working on other games tie-ins. And then I have at least two original series that have slipped behind in my schedule and need attention pretty fast. And then there's....well, you get the idea. You'll guess that I'm not planning any vacations for the next few years.
Some changes we choose. But some happen to us and have to be faced head-on. Tie-in work is, by its very nature, subject to a lot more unexpected change than other writing - it's someone else's copyright, and the writer has to live with that. It goes with the territory. That's why professional tie-in writers don't get emotionally attached to what they're working on. It's not that I take the task casually; but it's not my property, and the stewardship of it is always temporary. A pro has to be able to shrug, move on, and say: "Okay, nobody died, and the cheque didn't bounce - result! Next?"
But as a writer, I have a moral deal with you, the reader - if I hook you with a story, my part of the deal is to follow through and give you a satisfying outcome. If changes beyond my control mean I can't give you that, then I won't do a half a job. You deserve better than that. And in five, ten, twenty years time, nobody picking up the books will know that the stories suddenly changed direction because the canon changed in the middle of it. They'll just see books that went off-course for no visible reason and didn't deliver what they promised at the start.
You've been generous and loyal readers, and made my books best sellers, and I'm truly grateful for your support. The wonderful mail you send me is always appreciated, frequently funny, and often very moving, sometimes painfully so. That kindness and candour has meant a great deal to me. Many of you have become my good personal friends, too. Obviously you'll still see plenty of me in bookstores (and other fine retail establishments...) in the months and years ahead, but it'll be other Traviss tales.
So stick with me on my continuing journey in other universes, both tie-in and creator-owned, and I can guarantee you an action-packed ride with plenty of characters to get absorbed in.
December 2 2009
I'm an old journo, as you almost certainly know by now, and like any good journo (there are such animals, honest) I prefer to be proactive, not reactive.
But today I'm reacting, because somebody blurted out something on a forum, and the rumours started. Yes, for once a rumour is actually true; I've withdrawn from the sequel to Imperial Commando 501st, which was going to be my final Star Wars novel. I had issues over contractual matters and working practices that still showed no signs of being resolvable after a couple of years, so I told the publisher that I would not be doing the book.
A quick detour from the main item on the agenda: I realise many of you may not actually know what "contractual" means for a writer, so here's a one-minute guide to the writing industry in plain English. By contractual, I mean all the stuff that's not related to what's in the books themselves. It's convenient shorthand for the business side - your day-to-day working relationship with the publisher. That includes the contract itself (which titles, how many, when they're due, how much money, when you get paid and so on) to working practices, which are rarely written into the contract and tend to be the things you have to work out informally. Those vary from publisher to publisher and editor to editor. They're the nuts and bolts of how the job gets done and how you're treated, and cover a wide range of things from being kept fully in the loop about your project, to being given the chance to check the galleys before the book's printed, to whether you deliver the manuscript electronically or as hard copy, and even which colour of pencil the production people prefer you to use if you're marking up a paper manuscript. One thing that often doesn't appear in the contract is the format of the books (hardcover, paperback) even though that usually makes a big difference to how much you get paid. Publishing isn't quite like any other business model I know.
So if you have ambitions to be a professional writer in any medium - novels, comics, movies, games, TV, even non-fiction - remember that the only assets and resources your business has is you. One-man companies are the most vulnerable in the business world because you're the smallest plankton in the corporate food chain. Things that would probably only put a dent in a bigger company - long delays, projects that fall into indefinite limbo along with your cheque, late payment, non-payment, last-minute total makeovers, contracts that never materialise, mail that never gets answered, editors and producers who move and leave your show/ book/ movie a sudden orphan, and pestilence, flood, and network cancellations - can be catastrophic for a very small one. Those are the things that present the daily survival challenges that can put your business in jeopardy, and they're usually totally beyond your control. This is why you have to spread your risks. Writing is the easy bit. Few would-be writers are aware of the daily reality, but then most writers never give up the day job, and the world's a harsher place if you're a full-time pro. You can find yourself out of work on an unknown someone's whim without any warning or explanation on any day, no matter how successful you are, so you always need to have not only a Plan B ready for instant action, but a C and D as well. (Personally, I plan all the way to Z. But then I've been writing for a living - for paper and screen - nearly all my working life, and I don't believe in luck.)
But I digress. Back to the studio, as they say. I realise from the tsunami of mail I've had since my announcement in August that quite a few of you aren't up to speed with the general situation and have missed some of the salient points. Fair enough: here's a recap. I'm answering only the most frequent questions you've been sending me, to save you the trouble of mailing me again or relying on fifth-hand misquotes from fan sites.
1. Yes, the Boba Fett novel was cancelled by the publisher because of potential canon clashes with the upcoming TV series, as you have already heard from other sources. No, I really don't have a clue what those clashes might be. Sorry.
2. No, I wasn't ever going to be able to deal with Sev's fate, because he was off limits. I've been saying that for four years, and there's even an FAQ on my web site explaining the situation.
3. No, I can't reconsider. It's sweet of you to keep asking, but I had to make my decision nearly a year ago. When I was finishing 501st in January this year, I was told about a significant continuity change coming up in the Clone Wars cartoon. (As was mentioned and shown in a couple of books that came out in the summer - this is not confidential information of any kind now.) I was told that the Mandalorians were being revamped as long-standing pacifists who'd given up fighting centuries ago and that Mandalore was now a post-apocalyptic wasteland devastated by war. I was told not to refer to (recent) Mandalorian history because of that, as it was obviously at odds with the old continuity in my novels. That's fairly common procedure for any franchise - but unfortunately it wasn't that simple in practice. The two Commando series - and quite a few older books and comics, come to that -were based entirely on that original history, and basic logic meant that the fundamental plot of the series could never have existed if this had been a pacifist society. Neither could any of the characters or their motives have existed, because they were wholly based on a global warrior culture living on a non-nuked Mandalore. I had some discussion in January with the editor about possible ways around the problem, but after that, I heard nothing to indicate that the position would change, so the plan went ahead to wind up my existing storyline in the two books that were already in the pipeline. It was too late for me to rewrite 501st even if the changes hadn't made that pretty well impossible.
4. No, it doesn't make any difference if that canon changes again in the future. To answer the what-if question put by many of you, if that new canon is ever modified (and no, I've been given no indication whatsoever that it would be, so please don't get excited... ) then it was already too late for me ten or eleven months ago. That was when I had to make my decision. No writer can put the rest of their work on hold to see what might happen at an unspecified date in the future on the off-chance of being given an occasional paperback to write. That's the reality of work-for-hire, and writing in general; you have to cast your net wide, and across all media. As much as I've enjoyed writing for all you Star Wars fans, and you've been terrific to me, it wasn't my whole career and neither could it have been, even if I'd wanted it to be. As a freelance studio director from my TV days used to say: "I can't sit around waiting for the next series of Sooty*." The canon changes were the key deciding issue in a single series that I was hanging around to finish, but the contractual/ working practice side of things was the main influence on my longer-term decision.
Some of you have already asked what's going to happen to the book, but I just don't know - and I actually don't know any more than I did in January. All I can tell you is what I would have written had I gone ahead with IC#2, and - summarizing loosely - the main characters would have escaped the Empire in the ba'slan shev'la you already know about from Legacy of the Force. (But you knew all that from Revelation anyway.) I would have left the story in a state where the powers that be could either put it on ice forever, or resurrect it with another writer and a new direction. I don't write scorched-earth roadblock endings that make it impossible for other authors to continue stories, because that's pointless and unprofessional, and the only person who suffers is the reader.
So there you have it. I've rescheduled, I have a lot of new work to do, existing work to finish, and several new cell phones. (Don't ask... ) And I'm having an indecent amount of fun using skills I haven't exercised in a very long time as well as learning new ones I didn't know I had in me.
But that's another story - one for next year.
(* Sooty & Sweep. You'll have to run a search on it. Unless you're a certain age.)
Posted on December 02, 2009 at 09:13 AM | Permalink
December 3 2009
Folks, you are absolute sweethearts. You always have been, right from the first book; no writer could wish for better, kinder readers. But I think you give me too much credit for something. I don't like to be seen as something I'm not. Like Cromwell*, I prefer to be painted "warts and all."
It's clear from the mail I'm getting after yesterday's entry that many of you think this is some noble act of creative martyrdom. I'm sorry to disappoint you, but it just isn't. I tried to walk you through a complicated industry stage by stage, but I've failed with many of you, I think. If you read yesterday's blog slowly and carefully, I do spell it out. It's nothing to do with what I think of actual storylines - it's part technical, part business. It's nothing to do with liking or not liking changes. It's about whether I can make something work or not.
Business side - you don't need to know the details. But I'm a business, just like your local baker, plumber, supermarket, or car dealership. It's a job like any other. I make the same kinds of decisions for the same kinds of reasons. (By the way, I don't work for LFL - novelists almost always work for publishers, not directly for franchises. I know it's complicated, but then reality generally is. )
Technical side - it's about nuts and bolts of making a story. I tried to think of a really clear example, and the best I can come up with is World War II.
Imagine that World War II is just fiction, totally made up, and a small part of a bigger storyline. (I don't want you getting bogged down in arguments about real history - please.) You're making a TV series called SAVING PRIVATE SMITH, about a bunch of soldiers against the background of a war started by some guy in a country called Germany. You're quite a long way through the series when someone else on the team says, "We've had to change a few things. That Hitler guy - he never happened. Someone shoots him on the Reichstag steps just before he takes office."
So you raise your hand and say, "Er... yeah, but what happens to the war, then, if Hitler isn't around? If the war doesn't happen... what are the troops doing there? How can they ever be fighting in France or Germany if the war never started?" And then everyone's got to decide if any of that war stuff works anymore. It doesn't. A story has to stand in its own right, and suddenly removing the Third Reich and Hitler - however good a storyline that is or isn't - makes the rest of the story make no sense to the viewer if it stays the same. Remember the Ballard short story about the time traveller and the butterfly he steps on? It's like that. The present day is altered.
And that's story causality. That's all it is. It's sequential logic. And franchises deal with that every day, because if they stop changing, they fossilize, and they lose customers. Sometimes changes work painlessly, and sometimes they don't. So you go with the information you have on the day, and make a choice.
Back to SW. Because you as readers love it, you automatically think in terms of the writer loving it, and being invested in the things that you're invested in. You think that what upsets you also upsets writers. But I'm not you, although I know pretty well what my customers will like and not like. I can't speak for any other writer, because we're all different, but I'm not invested emotionally in stories or characters - not even in my own Wess'har series. It's very temporary for me. I'm engaged emotionally as the character for the time that I'm writing in their point-of-view, but then I step out of it, and switch characters for the next scene, and even the next franchise. When the book is done, I go back to being me. I couldn't handle the job otherwise - it's the way I learned to focus on the story as a journalist and not get too involved to do the job rationally and disapassionately.
And I do it to earn a living. That's all there is to it. I don't mind or even care what choices franchises make in creative terms, as long as they're not into offensive stereotypes, because we all know when we go in the door that it's their call. But if I can't make a jigsaw puzzle fit, or Hitler was shot before he could start the war, then I don't have the nuts and bolts to carry on with what I was doing.
It's not a matter of like or not like . It's a matter of can or can't.
During my time in SW, in all the books, I picked the backwaters of the franchise as far as I was able, and characters that nobody else seemed to be interested in writing about. I kept well clear of other folks' territory and characters wherever possible, because that's the safest thing to do when you're the new kid and you don't want to upset anyone or risk continuity clashes. Usually, sticking to a small pond is enough to avoid inevitable continuity issues. In this case, it happened that it wasn't, and that's just tough luck. So you just dust yourself off. And if there are wider issues beyond the technical ones, then you evaluate your business's future and make a decision.
So please don't ascribe nobler motives to me than I actually have. I told you my reasons in as detailed a way as I was able. And it's mostly stuff I've already told you before. I'm a pragmatist - data-rational, not emotional.
But I still appreciate and value your kindness. I just prefer you to have no illusions about me.
(*Come back, Oliver. Your country needs you. I'd love to see how you'd have dealt with MPs fiddling their expenses.)
AMENDMENT, 11/12/09: Chris Billett tells me the butterfly story is Bradbury. When I've said Bradbury in the past (I've not read it - you had to ask?) others have insisted it's Ballard. As neither story is likely to have pictures in it or lend itself to being coloured in with crayons, I'll never find out for myself. I shall take Chris's counsel instead.
Posted on December 03, 2009 at 10:41 AM | Permalink
Q. How do I get into writing my favourite franchise fiction?
Franchise fiction is more commonly known as licensed fiction or "tie-ins" - you come up with the creative stuff, but the copyright remains with the owner of the franchise. Stories where the universe is yours are known as creator-owned or own-copyright; I hate the term "original" fiction, because much "original" fiction is far from original, and much franchise fiction is more original than creator-owned stuff. The difference is, crudely put, who stands to make the big bucks from it. It's about ownership of copyright, and not much else. As I've written both creator-owned critically acclaimed stuff (i.e. the stuff the lit snobs don't mind being caught reading) and tie-ins (the stuff the lit snobs never read but diss anyway) I hold the professional/moral high ground.
And yes, I regard all the books like resurrections of Agatha Christie, Ian Fleming, and others as franchise fiction too. They're all set in another person's universe. No amount of avoidance of terms like tie-in, franchise, shared universe, or whatever changes that underlying reality.
Any writer or lit professor who dismisses franchise fiction as requiring less creativity is a fool, and doesn't actually understand the craft of writing. Creatively, it's harder, because a lot of what you do is turning fairly dodgy basic material (movies and games can get away with inconsistent characters and plots that make no sense) into something coherent enough to make sense as a novel. And you're as locked into continuity in your own original fiction as you are in someone else's sandbox. Once you commit something to the page, then you're stuck with making everything else fit, although you're at least spared the random changes imposed by IPs because they want to make changes in the primary product. The big difference, as I say, is that you don't make the money from your ideas in the same way that you would if it was your own copyright.
Anyway, every week, I get mail from fans of various franchises who want to write tie-in books professionally. Some have even finished novels and want to know how they go about submitting them to publishers. What follows makes specific reference to Star Wars, but it applies to pretty well any universe you might be a fan of.
How did I first get into tie-ins? Because Del Rey approached me out of the blue on the basis of my first novel, City of Pearl. I didn't know anything about SW and I certainly wasn't a fan. I didn't even know what a tie-in was, to be honest, but I knew how to write a novel, and they could see that because I'd just sold a series to a major publisher. The best advice I can give a would-be writer is not to write stories set in their favourite franchise, but to concentrate on creator-owned fiction and get a name for that, and then the franchise might approach them. All the franchise work I've done has come up that way; editors called me because they knew what they were getting. They'd seen what I could do and what my strengths were, and they knew I could do it very fast, too.
Now I'll explain that advice.
If you've already written a tie-in novel without being asked, and you want to get it published, I'm afraid it'll never see the light of day except as fanfic. There's no point writing a novel if you haven't been contracted to do one. And there's no point sending franchises your ideas, because they're all drowning in them, even if the quality of their output might make it look as if they haven't had an idea in ten years. They know what they want, to a greater or lesser extent. And not only do they not need unsolicited ideas or manuscripts, they generally don't even want to see them for legal reasons -- because from time to time, fans or would-be writers accuse franchises of stealing their ideas and take them to court. It's easier not to even look at the stuff in the first place.
Franchises and the publishers who buy the right to produce books under that "brand" commission work from writers. Generally, they decide broadly what they want – "how the war between the Thargs and the Grollies pans out" – and then ask a writer if he/ she wants to do it. If you're offered a work-for-hire contract, sometimes you get free rein to do pretty well what you want within very broad parameters they give you (like the Republic Commando books, where my brief was just making it "about a squad") and sometimes you get something like a movie novelisation where the story has - obviously - already been decided. (But even then, some franchises will let you ski off piste while others want the writer to stick to the script, word for word.) It can also be anywhere in between. But, by and large with tie-ins, the owner of the franchise picks the very broad subject area, and you come up with the story, or if they already have a more specific idea, you submit proposals within that for them to choose from. That's true for most if not all major franchises. I know of only one franchise that would look at unproven writers, and even that was a closed process, not a case of being open to submissions from anyone.
Okay, I got a lot more leeway when I wrote tie-ins. Franchises discussed things with me and asked me what I thought would be a good direction to go in. Mostly I got to do what I wanted. But I only had that freedom because I'd already proven I knew what would add value to a franchise, and my sales track record speaks for me. I'm a very safe bet and I've demonstrated that I know exactly what I'm doing. But if you're A. N. Unknown, you won't walk straight into that situation.
The only way to get asked to the tie-in party is to be a published writer to start with, by which I mean you need to have your own books published and in the bookstores, either by a traditional publisher or self-published via something like Kindle, because if you've done okay via self-publishing then a sensible editor will be able to check out that book and see if they think you're competent. What editors need to know is that you can also meet the "invisible" professional standards, though. The powers that be approach professional writers because pros have demonstrated they can produce material to a certain market standard and understand the disciplines and deadlines of the job. There's also a group of specialist tie-in writers already out there, writing across a wide spectrum of genres. It requires a certain mindset that not all professional authors can manage, and it requires speed. You won't get years to write a book. In many franchises, it's weeks.
The biggest potential stumbling block for fans who want to be writers is that work-for-hire demands that you accept that the franchise is the boss, for good or ill. There's no point telling the guy who owns the copyright that he or she is wrong and the fans know what's best -- which seems to be a common thread in fandoms. (I'm not saying all franchise are right all the time, but they do hold the legal ownership all the time, and that's what you need to understand.) Some franchises are a joy to work with and treat you as a valued professional; some are frankly vile and treat you like dirt; and some are quite nice folks but frustrating as hell because they're chaotic, can't make decisions, won't give you the information you need to do the job, can't manage their own content, miss all the deadlines you need them to meet, and so on. In short: you have to be able to grit your teeth and take stuff that you would never have to put up with if you owned the copyright yourself. I'm guessing that a lot of fans would be painfully disappointed if they ever got to work for the object of their affections, because they'd hit the rocks the first time the franchise wanted something that didn't fit the fan-writer's personal vision of their beloved universe -- or they'd just be horrified by how disorganised and badly thought out some of it is. (Like any industry, but at least a rolling cock-up in publishing isn't like a rolling cock-up in the nuclear industry or your local neurosurgery unit... )
This is one reason why I say it's a bad idea for a writer to be a serious fan of something -- if it's only a job to you and you're not emotionally invested, you can do what needs doing and just look at the nuts and bolts of the craft, and write a good book, comic, or script. If you don't get the tools and spare parts you need to do that job (or you don't get paid, or the franchise or publisher is too much of a pain in the arse to work with) then you move on and forget all about it. But if the franchise is a tender part of your psyche, you'll be too wedded to the stuff, and you'll find that the creative decisions made above your head will hurt and may even destroy your love of the franchise. Be careful what you wish for, fanboys.
Now to my other main reason for saying fans shouldn't write pro books, and it's about the customer, not the writer. It's always hard to say this to people who want desperately to write books in their favourite universe, but being a fan is seldom the best qualification for writing it. Fans think that because they love a particular franchise and think they know a lot about it, that'll automatically mean they can write good books. Alas, that's not the case, because a successful book is about the depth of the characterisation and the way it's written - not the plot, the subject matter, the continuity detail, or even a love of the universe concerned. In fact, that love can make it much harder to write, as I've said above, because a fannish writer might not be happy to let go of favourite ideas or kill off characters if they're told to, and they might write material that only means something to serious fans, not to the vast majority of casual readers on whom the industry depends.
In fact, if you write a franchise book that requires the reader to have some knowledge of the universe before they can understand or enjoy it, you've failed at your task, with a cap F. Books - all books, actually - have to stand on their own and be accessible, without needing "qualified" readers or accompanying handbooks. (Science fiction generally is notorious for alienating the general reader or viewer with its barriers of insider-understood tropes.) My benchmark is that anyone should be able to pick up one of my tie-ins and get into it, even if they know nothing about the franchise. I did that by making the characters come alive, not by making the stage they were on too esoteric.
And it's not only would-be writers who can fall into the fan trap. Even if you're a pro, if you're also too much of a fan you won't be giving the customer your best. Deep down, you may want the reader to love something the way that you do, even if you don't realise that. You'll shy away from showing the warts and grey areas that every fully-fleshed character should have. You need to be willing to take brutal risks with your sacred cows, or you won't hit the emotional nerves that a good story needs. That's tough to pull off if your heart is tied up in that universe.
If you want to make a full-time living at writing, being solely focused on Star Wars or Halo or any other franchise that you love isn't the way to do it. You'll need to have a much wider scope than that, and unless you're exceptionally lucky with your own-copyright fiction, you'll have to do other tie-in work, which you have to approach that with the same passion that you would your beloved franchise. That's the hard bit. Few professional writers can do it, which is why there's a core of specialists who can turn their hand to any universe. We have a way of finding something in any franchise that can generate enough enthusiasm in us to get a good book out of it, even if we'd never so much as look at that universe in daily life. Liking the subject matter to start with is not required -- nor is knowing a lot about it. In fact, the less I knew about a franchise to start with, the better the job I made of it, so I wouldn't touch a franchise that I was familiar with as a customer. I wouldn't have been able to view it as a writer.
It's the difference between a hobby - fanfic - and a job. If all you want to write is SW, or Trek, or Halo, or BSG, then chances are you won't make it professionally because your personal motivation is too narrow and you're not coming from a storyteller's perspective. You've got to have more stories than that inside you waiting to be told. If you don't feel equally passionate - or at least enthusiastic - about writing a wide range of stories outside your particular fandom, then you won't write well, and that means you won't get a crack at the stuff you want to do anyway.
One final thought: the only name on a book is yours. No matter how many franchise logos are plastered over the cover, you're the only person named. For good or ill, you take all the bouquets and brickbats. Pick your franchise carefully. If it's one with a great reputation, all well and good, but if you get linked with one that isn't so terrific, it doesn't matter how good your own work is; you're inextricably linked with the primary product, and that can taint you for the rest of your career.
This essay may be familiar to some of you, because a version of it first appeared on my LJ a couple of years ago. I'm still struggling to work out how to import all the archived entries I've downloaded from my old blogs, so as that moment of Pauline revelation still seems to be some way off, I managed to find one that needed re-running and load it manually.
This is about how I create characters, and it's one of the top five questions I get asked. Read on.
Do I base characters on real people? No, no and thrice no. Some real people may seem fascinating, but they just don't have what it takes to become fiction characters. A buddy of mine who writes police procedurals doesn't agree with this, and fills his very successful thrillers with men and women who are not only real, but are also often individuals who I know personally. They just have their serial numbers filed off: but they're described in the smallest and - frequently - most baffling detail.
But if you're not one of the dozen people who know this is what he does, does it matter? In my opinion - for whatever that's worth - yes, I think it does. Nicking real dialogue and speech patterns from the living (and sometimes the dead - I know no shame) is one thing; you have control over separate elements, just as you can cherry pick from real events and make them work.
But nicking complete personality profiles isn't so easy. Real people in their entirety are almost never sufficiently interesting, three dimensional or stylised in their behaviour to survive in fiction, certainly not as a main character whose actions will drive the plot. If you mirror real behaviour patterns too faithfully, it starts to feel as if there are thin patches and inconsistencies; chunks of it might work, but the whole messy package doesn't. If you borrow from life, you have to be selective.
Fiction is a distillation process. Just as you cut out most of the "er...um...ah" and sentence fragments of real speech in dialogue, the ers and ums and fillers of the personality also need a good trim. (And if you don't know what I mean about dialogue, compare your favourite example of realistic dialogue with a genuine transcript of a conversation. A very useful exercise indeed.) More recently, I've taken the example of asking a young child to draw an elephant as seen from the air. More often than not, they'll meticulously draw all four legs at full extension, the tail in its entirety, ears spread flat, trunk fully extended...but that's not what an elephant looks like from an aerial view. It looks more like a distorted egg timer with maybe a bit of tail, but the legs? No. Full ears? No. Trunk? Varies. There's nothing in the kid's drawing that's not elephant, but that's just not how the animal looks from that angle. The kid hasn't learned perspective yet.
A writer needs that same perspective to know what to leave out of a character.
Maybe I take this too seriously because I write by constructing characters, personality disorders and all, and then putting them in their environment, where they run like a computer model by interacting with other characters created the same way. I fit the character to the world they're in; I ask, "What kind of person would volunteer for a one-way space mission?" or some key niche marker like that, then work out who would fill it. Even with a character that I inherit in a shared universe, I can still develop (and deconstruct) them further by applying the same techniques of sociobiology and psychological profiling. And I think I've learned how to make characters really work every time. The books I write are completely character driven. Plot, as far as I'm concerned, is what characters do, not a maze that you put characters in and then force them to navigate through it.
This is what I mean when I say that the characters run the plot: if they're solid enough, you know what they will and won't do, and even what they'd buy if you let them loose in a supermarket.
I stay away from real life, or else I use it sparingly - such as rewriting battles from history - because real life doesn't have to make sense. Fiction does. And I know that's a worn-out warning, but I've had it proven to me time and time again. The very best scandal and real life soap opera I ever experienced would simply not make a novel, nor would the main people involved in it be believable characters, even though it left us speechless every day for a period of nine years. It was a must-see, but there was no internal logic in either events or characters that would stand the fiction test. It was too dumb, too repetitive, and too illogical.
My police procedural buddy, of course, goes in exactly the opposite direction on real people, and he's not exactly starving. I happen to prefer to explore the world through someone else's mind and eyes, and I happen to be able to do it - it is, an actor tells me, exactly like method acting. It's becoming a different person for the duration of the performance, motivated by their motivations and thinking their thoughts. At the end, you step out of it; and you might be changed by that character, but they're not changed by you. Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to know what it was like to be someone else, whether the world would look or smell or taste the same way that I experienced it; now I get those answers as best I can through "method writing." In a way, it's a controlled and voluntary excursion into a state that's similar - I believe - to dissociative identity disorder. Except people who suffer from that can't or don't choose when they manifest a separate personality, but I can switch it on and off at the keyboard, rather like the difference between lucid dreaming and the regular involuntary kind.
I can lucid-dream too. Maybe the same brain wiring enables me to do both.
I had an e-mail asking about characterisation and what I thought made believable characters. Whole books get written on creating characters, and as I'm not being paid to do that here my mercenary hack spirit whispers in my ear that I should pick one aspect that I think gets neglected and stick to that.
What follows is my personal view and I know it clashes completely with some received wisdom on writing. But it works for me, and that's the most you can claim for any technique.
I write very tight third person POV. My aim is to get the reader to sit behind the character's eyes, so anything that jerks them out of the head of that character can destroy the whole scene. Getting dialogue and action consistent with the character is pretty obvious, but it's easy to forget the bit in between - the narrative - is an integral part of voice. Not only is it easy to forget, but there are also people who tell you that you shouldn't do it.
I've read very strong opinions that matching dialogue and narrative is "ugly" and that editors don't like it because it reminds the reader that the character is a puppet. Personally, I think that's crap. I "match" all the time; it's how I wrote City of Pearl and my other books. For me, it's the gulf between dialogue and narrative that makes me think the character is a puppet, because all I can hear is that overseeing authorial voice, and it gets on my nerves. I resent it.
In tight third person POV, the narrative is really the character's internal dialogue and I believe it has to mirror their speech, their attitudes and their experience. A peasant farmer won't be pondering the harsh reality of his existence in terms of Nietzsche: he'll have a farming analogy that corresponds to becoming stronger by surviving adversity. And even a highly educated, stunningly articulate character won't be using elaborate language in their thoughts when they find they're in the path of an oncoming train. So the thoughts - the narrative - have to fit the mind they come from.
Many of my characters are ordinary working men and women with modest educations, so I reflect that equally in their dialogue and their narrative. In View of a Remote Country, my protag Evan was a semi-literate labourer who longed for education: as he acquired that education, his dialogue, his attitudes and the language he used in narrative changed between the opening of the story and the end. View was a story I wrote at Clarion when we were asked to try something uncomfortable and unfamiliar, and I decided to try using a character who had a poor command of English, which denied me all my usual language techniques and forced me to see the world through his eyes. Looking back, that was one of the most useful exercises I ever did.
Some readers will find it hard to read, because it doesn't match their own language skills. It feels "dumbed down" to them. But for me, a character who thinks in terms and language outside their experience isn't a character: what I'm hearing is the author, and personally I don't like any back-seat driver telling me what to think when I read. I want to feel what it is to be that character by being in their head, not the author's.
Mileages, as ever, will vary. Many people want to hear the authorial voice and a universal narrative style. I don't. The closest I've come to that is to opt for a reportage approach, because I don't want the style overpowering the content. I believe that if readers notice how I write before they hear what I'm saying, I've failed in my role as a storyteller.
Part of the joy of writing is to go to new places, and there's no more alien territory than another person's mind. For me, matching dialogue and narrative is an integral part of that.
Now I'm writing full-time, it takes me between two and five weeks. I need to take a run at it and dive in, and not come up for air until I'm done, or I lose the immersion in the characters and the intensity. Yes, it's physically hard work, and it makes me ill. But it's the only way I know.
My maximum output is 50,000 words a week, although I've done 37,000 in two days - once. I can't type any faster, and my keyboard speed struggles to keep up with what wants to pour out of my head, even though I type fast.
The published version of REVELATION took three weeks because I binned the first version and started again with a few chapters to go, and rewrote it from the top. CLONE WARS took two weeks, because it was a movie tie-in, and that's when the screenplay was finalised for me - two weeks before the deadline. That's quite generous time for movie tie-ins. TRIPLE ZERO took five weeks, like GEARS OF WAR: ASPHO FIELDS because I wrote all day until I was too tired, and so that's my natural optimum speed. (When needs dictate, I'll work through the fatigue barrier for up to 72 hours straight, but that's not big, and it's not clever. It's dangerous.) When I was working full time in another job, a novel took me 8 to 12 weeks because it was all done in my spare time.
I write fast naturally. I'd never have made it as a journalist if I couldn't. And when I write fiction, I usually see the story like a full-sensory movie in my head - pictures, sound, smell, taste, sensation - so all I have to do is describe it, which is fast too.
Anyone who says a book "must" take a certain time to be any good is, not to mince words, an idiot. Sorry, but they are. I've even heard writers who should know better trot out this twaddle. They're input-oriented folk - like governments, who think that the more money you pour into the health service, the better it works. It doesn't. You can see the lack of sense in the input argument for yourself in any bookstore, just by reading; you ought to be able to tell the books that took longest to write by their quality, right? No, of course you can't. Because it's irrelevant. (And if anyone's come up with an objective test of what makes a "good" book, let me know, because I say it it doesn't exist.)
Outcomes, outputs and inputs are entirely different things, even in writing. A book takes as long as you need to write it, not a day more or a day less, because it's not homework or an essay. It's a very personal and individual process that is different for every writer. Some folks like to chip away at it a little at a time, others (like me) need to drown in it, and there is every degree in between.
I would bet you your house, your trust fund and your kids (I can always sell them, you see) that if you did a blind test on a range of novels, you as a reader would not know how long it took to write each one unless the author told you. It could be anything from 20 years to a week (yes, there are folks even faster than me) but it wouldn't show in the finished product.
Proof of the pudding and all that. I just do it fast because I can. And, as P. G. Wodehouse said, "I never want to see anyone, and I never want to go anywhere or do anything. I just want to write. "
Q. I don't understand book lengths. How can books have the same number of pages but have different word counts?
It's one of those clever - and necessary - sleights of hand by the production people.
I like to place a bet with readers (which I've always won so far, so never be tempted to lay down your money) that they can't estimate the word count of a novel. Unless they're skilled at something called "casting off" - working out word count on a printed page and applying that to a book - they generally look at the thickness and physical size of the book. And they guess wrong.
Book word counts vary wildly - ORDER 66 is 190,000 words, pretty well twice as long as the average novel. How does a publisher deal with that in an established format?
Books need to be a predictable size; they have to be manufactured to a price, stored, transported and displayed. Then they have to fit on home bookshelves. People tend to like books that are easy to read, handle, and store. We generally like and need novels to be certain sizes. If you picked up a diary-sized novel in a series one day and the sequel was the size of a family bible, you'd probably find that annoying. I know many readers won't buy hardcovers and wait for mass market paperback editions simply because the regular size of "MMPBs" fits their bookcase, or is easier to carry around.
So, production editors and typographers do a very clever job of smoothing out that big variation using white space and font sizes to get more words on each page - or fewer. They're so good at doing it that a manuscript of 100,000 words can be made into a book that is identical in overall size to one up to twice the length. Don't believe me? Pick a few books at random, do a word count, and then look at the appearance of the pages. You won't notice it unless you're looking for it.
I turn in long books. It's just the way I write - with a few exceptions in specific circumstances, my novels are between 150,000 and 190,000 words. The average mass market novel comes in at between 80,000 and 110,000. But I don't know many readers who've spotted that. They shouldn't, to be fair. The typesetting will disguise much of it. And then there's pacing. Even though my books are long, they're a fast read; there are lots of characters, lots of scene changes, and no spare words. They're densely packed with information and they cover a lot of ground. So readers tell me they can rip through them in a day or so. When I tell them they've read the equivalent of two novels, they're often surprised. A shorter novel can seem a lot longer because it's written "slow."
Page count doesn't mean a thing. It doesn't tell you how much book you're getting for your money. And, to be brutal, if your evaluation of any book is based on how many words you get rather than the impact it has on you and how well it's written - well, that's just dumb. Sorry, but it is. It's not like a pound of apples for 50 pence being better value than a pound for 75 pence. You're not being short-changed if you get a shorter novel. And left wanting more is not being short-changed. It's what good books are supposed to do.
My novels are immersive - readers tell me they get wholly absorbed in them - but that's not because they're long. It's because of the way I write them.
So don't get hung up about counting pages. A book is as long as it needs to be to tell the story. Just open it, and enjoy.
Q. What does abridgement of a book mean? Does it matter?
I received the audio book of GEARS OF WAR: ASPHO FIELDS today, the unabridged version. Being a writer who usually works at between 150,000 - 190,000 words per book (with the CW novels being an exception) that means an awful lot of CDs - ten for ASPHO FIELDS, in fact.
I've had to put the audio book to one side and resist the urge to listen to it for the time being. The single narrator isn't, of course, the full cast of voice artists who did the game. And while I'm writing Gears books, I have to keep those voices untouched in my mind to hit the dialogue right. If I hear another voice when I should be hearing John DiMaggio, then I'm stuffed. It's just the way I work. So David Colacci's interpretation of the Gears will be a treat for a future date when I can no longer be distracted.
One thing is certain, though - an unabridged ASPHO FIELDS will be the full experience of the novel. Nothing has been cut. If you splash out on this full version - and I accept that it costs a lot more than the abridged one - then you won't be missing anything from the book.
I admit I have mixed feelings about the value of audio books simply because of abridgement. Some books are abridged for audio and some aren't, and it's all about length. A number of readers have asked me about the audio versions of my Star Wars books, and I feel honour-bound to put a few caveats on my response because I don't want to mislead customers.
Put bluntly, abridged audio books are not the full book experience. Don't get me wrong; they're very cleverly done, and they have to be cut for a sound business reason, but they just can't be the same thing as the full book they're based on. What you lose will depend on the writer and their individual style, but on content alone, you'll see that a 160,000 word novel boiled down to about 90,000 - 100,000 words so that it fits on five discs in standard packaging and hits a certain price point will not yield the result that the author originally intended. It's almost cut in half.
Abridging for audio book (or radio, come to that) is a demanding skill, and it's impressive to see it done well. Working on BLOODLINES was an education; I was given the abridged manuscript and I compared it with the full version to see what had been changed. Nothing had been added. It had simply been filleted. It was so cleanly done that the plot remained intact and none of the basic detail essential to following the plot had been lost. That takes some doing.
What had been lost, though, was the depth of characterisation and worldbuilding. I don't pad books, and every line is there for a reason - primarily characterisation, to immerse the reader in what it really feels like to be the point-of-view character. A lot of Fett's motivation didn't make it into the audio version, for example, and while the audio book was still a coherent story and it had the bonus of excellent narration, it lost some of the essential flavour of the novel. It simply wasn't what I wrote any longer. It was more like a translation, despite the fact that nothing had been actively changed or added. The detail that had been removed out of necessity had changed the work into something else. That should be obvious, I suppose, but most readers won't realise what they're not getting if all they do is listen to abridgements.
Discussing the dilemma of abridgement with a lit critic, something struck me; the two incarnations of BLOODLINES make an excellent teaching tool for would-be writers. By comparing the two, you can learn a lot about the nuts and bolts of characterisation. You can see and hear exactly, word by word, what makes the difference between an okay and entertaining story, and one that reduces a reader to tears. That's a quote from a reader, by the way. The novel made them weep; the audio book didn't. The novel built a cumulative effect of watching Fett come to terms with his wretchedly empty life. There were elements that were lost in the other plot lines,too, but that one that stuck in my mind because a reader explained to me in detail how she felt about it.
So if you rely wholly on abridged audio books, you will never actually experience an author. You'll be getting a taster of what the author does, and you'll be hearing the talent of an editor and a voice artist. But you won't be experiencing the book any more than a faithful movie adaptation (and note that I say faithful) will replace the novel it's based upon.
Many novels aren't abridged for audio, and so you lose nothing. It's still a different experience on a very subtle level, if only because the narrator's voice will steer your mind in a slightly different way from where it might have gone had you done the reading for yourself. But nothing the author intended has been removed.
So - if you buy an audio book, check which version you're getting. If it's abridged, it won't be the same as the book, and in the case of some of my books - it might only be the half of it.
And don't let anyone tell you otherwise. I don't care how many doctorates and fancy titles they might have - they're in no position to tell you. Their taste is not yours, and there is no damn reason why it should be, either. The idea of refined and educated tastes versus the crass desires of the common masses (i.e. you and me) is so steeped in the ghastly Victorian middle-class morality of "self improvement" that it makes me nauseous.
There are common elements that authors can draw on to make a book appeal to a lot of human beings. Those can be analyzed and nailed down, in broad terms. It's just basic psychology. But deciding if a book is good - that's up to you, the individual reader.
Every reader brings their own life experience, emotional baggage, tastes, needs, and education to each book they read. The book isn't precisely what the author intended it to be; it can't be. The author is only the producer, not the end user. A novel is always seen through the reader's personal filter. So we start from the basis of having no truly definable product, because each copy of a novel is different simply because of the way it's read by someone.
Not only that - read the same book at different times in your life, and see how you feel about it. Chances are it won't produce the same reaction in you. This was perfectly illustrated for me by a soldier who wrote to me a few times, a couple of years apart; first, he'd read the Republic Commando books as a young single man, so he saw the story as that of the naive clone commandos finding their way in the world of combat. Then he got married and had a son. When he read the books again, he told me, they felt like wholly new novels - because he was a father, and so Sergeant Skirata's paternal devotion to his adopted family of young soldiers became the main theme for him. Yes, it was a different series in every sense. I know when I write that different demographics will latch on to different things, but I still can't tell any individual reader how they'll experience a book at any given point in their life. That's part of the joy of fiction; it's an adventure each time you turn the page.
The trouble is that we're all taught at school to believe literary critique as if it's some objective scientific analysis. People who know better than us (says who, and why?) tell us what's a good novel and what isn't, and we have to regurgitate that opinion in exams as if it's the immutable holy truth. Actually, all we're taught is what a very small self-selected middle-class elite has decided is the received wisdom on fiction; it's nothing more than the opinion of a few people. It's extremely biased in every sense of the word. It's totally subjective. So there's no need to take any notice of it, unless your business is knowing what critics have said about certain books, or you have to cite those opinions in exams. (Note that I say cite. Not share or believe. Professor Whatshisname's opinion is his alone, not yours.)
If this form of teaching simply feeds bias about books, that's bad enough, but a lot of folks come out of the education system feeling ashamed for not liking (or understanding) the books they're told they ought to appreciate. They want to read other stuff, but they've been given negative messages about their personal choices. And it's hard to separate those from negative messages about yourself. All too often, youngsters just get turned off reading. They've been made to feel inferior. And that makes me mad. Because nobody has the right to turn someone's harmless* entertainment choices into a stigma, let alone one that affects them for the rest of their life. Look down on the books someone likes to read, and you're probably looking down your nose at them, too, even if you don't want to admit it. (Educators, parents - I ask you to be honest with yourselves about this. Too many kids have told me horror stories about being belittled and humiliated for their reading choices. Making kids feel bad about themselves isn't cause for professional or parental pride.)
So I challenge anyone reading this who can come up with a genuine and robust definition of a good book to contact me and share it - and I mean definable. A benchmark. A performance indicator. A measurable, observable, and repeatable set of parameters that define "good" for the vast majority of users, and that can be evaluated and monitored.
I think I'm going to have a very long wait.
The only measurable benchmark available to us that stands any degree of scrutiny is sales figures - because generally folks buy what they like, not what they're told to like, and they don't keep on buying things they hate. (Set books for educational courses excepted...) Okay, we all know people who buy copies of the latest Booker winner or something else they hope makes them look cool or intellectual, and then never read it, but most folks don't throw their money away like that.
So we're back to where we started. You like a book? Then it's a good book. Because nobody else can be in your head while you're reading it, and only you know if it's hit the spot for you or not.
And if you're worried about what others think of your reading habits - stop living your life constrained by others' opinions. Life is way too short for that. Go enjoy whatever books you fancy. And don't stop your kids reading what they want to read, either.
Trust your own taste, but don't impose it on others, or let anyone else impose theirs on you.
(*But if your entertainment choices involve socially nasty and illegal stuff, then I think I do reserve the right to make negative judgments about you...)
Q. Aren't games and comics for dumb people? If they were smarter, wouldn't they read novels?
(From my old blog, November 26, 2008.)
Hell, no. What's so special about novels? They didn't even exist a few centuries ago.
I don't read novels. Can't stand them. I'm very poorly read - ask my buddy Farah, who can gauge these things because SF novels are her professional area - and I get my entertainment from movies, comics, and TV. If you don't know that by now - and I've been pretty public about it - then pause a moment to read this FAQ before you catch up with this blog.
I mention this fact because I'm getting mail from Gearheads ( noble tribe!) about being turned on to reading by ASPHO FIELDS. I get very similar mail from a section of my SW readers too, who are more into games or movies or whatever, but pick up the Republic Commando books and suddenly decide that reading can be enjoyable, not a set task of misery. If there was a template for this kind of response, it would read as follows: "I hate reading and I've never finished a book before, but I enjoyed reading your novel, and now I want to read all kinds of stuff."
This is the kind of mail that editors love. We all want more customers. And it's great for my personal rep, because the writer who can get at the non-reading demographic (and younger male audience) is good for business. But it's also seen as some kind of much nobler grail - the ability to turn folks on the Holy Written Word.
If reading my books opens a door for someone and helps them find a wider medium they enjoy more than they thought they could, that's fantastic. I'm in the entertainment industry. And I love happy customers.
But remember something; I'm a writer who doesn't read novels, and not just because of time, or fear of ideas contamination, but because I just don't like doing it. And I resonate with readers who don't otherwise read, as well as the book-devourers who get through a library a week. I pondered on that, and I'm going to vent some heretical steam.
If you become a born-again reader because you've enjoyed one of my books, that's genuinely wonderful. But if you don't - it doesn't matter a damn. Because books are not sacred.
Yep, you heard right. There's nothing special about novels, or reading them. Provided you've mastered literacy skills - you can read, in other words - then books don't matter half as much as we're told they do. They matter to me, of course, because I earn my living mainly from novel-length fiction. But they're not the benchmark of civilisation.
Books have huge emotional impact. The image of a pile of burning books from the Nazi era sums up the end of human decency. Parents wish that their kids would sit down with a good novel instead of watching movies or TV. A book is culturally iconic, conjuring up all that fuzzy, vague, feelgood stuff about quality and intellectualism and wisdom.
But it's all underpinned by the quasi-Victorian ethic of improving yourself - because the middle classes read novels, and the oiks don't. They could lift themselves a little above their station (not too far, mind) by aping their social superiors. We're talking about reading novels here, by the way. Not newspapers or text books; this is not about literacy skills. This is about the worship of the novel as the purest and holiest form of fiction. And I can't think of a single reason why novels deserve that crown, other than the fact that the middle classes made the cultural rules that we still live by and that are still reinforced by the western education system.
Look, pulping a few trees and smearing ink on them has no inherent value. Marks & Spencer rose-pattern toilet rolls fit that broad description too. Worshipping the novel and sneering at comics or games is as devoid of reason as arguing that a mouse is better than a keyboard for inputting. Writing - the written word - is an input device that creates something in your head, just like sounds or images do, and it's the experience in your brain that counts. Writing is just another medium. People forget what "medium" actually means - and, to plunder the homily chest, the medium is not the message.
Books are just a different way of getting your fiction. They aren't any better. Just different. You can get the same pleasure and have your brain stimulated equally by playing a great game with fabulous, emotionally resonant cinematics and discussing it with your buddies as you can by reading a book related to it.
I'm actually disturbed by the idea that tie-ins are valuable gateways to reading, a view expressed as some sort of validation by some of my colleagues, because it implies that the Other Stuff is more worthy. The dummies will read like civilised folk if we can get them to look past the bookshop door, by tempting them in with shiny stuff they already recognise. Then, glory be, they shall be converted to Real Books.
Bullshit. Sorry, but I don't accept that.
Franchises become franchises because they strike a chord in people and create a following, not the other way around. Many have tried to manufacture blockbuster franchises, and failed completely because the core of it just didn't fly. There are franchise customers who want to explore their universe in various media, because they get a range different experiences that enhance their enjoyment. (Yes, the S word - synergy.) Some don't, though, for a huge range of reasons from cognitive variations - maybe they respond better to images or sound - to being turned off reading by bad teachers. It's not about "quality."
We're trying to connect things that aren't connected. Reading novels per se is not some pinnacle of brain activity that you have to climb towards from the pit of games through comics to movies to reach enlightenment. It's not a vertical ladder. It's a horizontal shopfront. Take your pick.
So next time you decide you're happy reading my Gears of War or Star Wars work but don't want to try my other books, let alone tackle Atlas Shrugged and the Booker prize list - it's okay. My motive for trying to get you to read more is to make money. It's not because I think you're now ready for bigger words and cleverer ideas. (Actually, my Wess'har books are written exactly the same way as my tie-in stuff. ) And it's not because I think reading generally will improve your mind or any patronising crap like that.
If you play Gears of War and can't face reading the book, because you just don't like books - that's okay too, although it would make me happy if you just tried a few pages. I'm a big fan of a certain TV series, and I'll mourn when it's over, but I've never picked up its licensed novels, and I never will. Not because I think they won't be of the same standard - and I know the guys who write them - but because I just don't respond to reading fiction or enjoy it. I'm a person who needs visual and aural input. And I like venting what aural and visual inputs create in my head in the form of writing novels.
It could just as easily be in the form of a comic or a game or a poem.
Me writer. You reader. Or not, as the case may be. Books are not compulsory.
Q. Is it true you don't read fiction? How can you write if you don't read books?
The same way you can read and understand books without being able to write them.
The two processes are not inseparable. You can do one, or the other, or both, but you don't need to do one to be able to do the other.
It's the same way that a male designer can design clothes for women without wanting to wear them, or a chef can create a dish even if she doesn't like some of the ingredients, and – well, as any professional can create something they don't use or consume. Or the way that a cardiac surgeon can operate on hearts without actually having a heart condition himself.
Actually, the more I think about that "you can't write without reading" claim, the dumber it looks. But some people cling to it like some religious belief. It just isn't true, you see. I could just as easily tell you that you have to watch a lot of movies to be a good writer, because that's what worked for me.
The enjoyment for me is in the creation or performance of the skill. It's a different cognitive process to consumption. Many writers don't read, in fact, usually because of time constraints and the fear of subconsciously absorbing influences, but they learn not to say so because of the illogical fury this seems to provoke in some readers and colleagues. But me, I've got a big mouth. I don't care if my non-reading pisses anyone off.
Reading and writing are not the same thing, which sounds obvious until you consider that readers very often want to be writers. That confuses folks and makes them think that somehow the two are indivisible. Many (if not most) writers came to writing because they loved reading and wanted to create something just like the books that gave them so much pleasure, but that's irrelevant and misleading if you're then going to assume reading is the only path to writing. It's rather like an odd idea my mother once had, that all pharmacists were failed doctors, because all the pharmacists she knew had failed their medical exams and switched careers. It's an assumption based on limited evidence, and like so much of that kind of thinking, it's hopelessly wrong, even if her methodology was pretty much the same as some scientists'. (Which shows you how important sample size and selection is when you're trying to draw conclusions form research.)
I came to writing via a wholly different route. I liked to write from the first time I was old enough to hold a pencil. I wanted to express myself. I've written for a living for nearly every day of my working life. When I'd had enough of various successful non-fiction writing careers, I decided to give fiction a go. That's all there is to it.
And I'm living proof that a facility with language and the ability to tell stories can come from anywhere, not just novels. In my case, my writing skills come from reporting – both newspapers and TV – and my storytelling was learned subconsciously watching movies and reading comics. Look hard, and you'll see those influences in the way I shape the structure and the way I handle point-of-view. I could just as easily tell stories in pictures as in words.
Personally, I like to consume my fiction in images. Or sounds – I still love radio drama.
I never have liked reading, really. As a kid, I was forced at school to read novels I hated, and it killed any glimmer of a love of reading forever. I didn't grow up in a home where there were lots of books, either. Where I come from, the illiteracy level is 25%. I just learned to read and write at an early age thanks to my parents giving me newspapers and endlessly answering my questions. I read some Golden Age SF as a kid and thought that made me well-read (it did, for my neighbourhood) but a wise friend who's a literary critic pointed out just how little I'd actually read even as a child. Yes: she's right.
So I don't read novels and shorts because:
1. I don't enjoy it. There are a few books I did read and loved, but – well, I think it's five or six in my whole life.
2. I never needed to, and still don't.
3. Teachers destroyed any love I might have developed for reading.
4. I'm not really interested in exploring anyone else's fully fleshed-out universe. I need the latitude to explore it on my own terms, which I get with tie-ins every bit as much as I do with my own-copyright work as long as there are empty spaces and open fields. But the more linear it is – the more infilled – the less I enjoy writing it. This is another reason why I have an affinity for game-related fiction. It's more open-ended.
5. Reading while you're writing is – for me – like hearing a tune that you find yourself whistling for days afterwards, and aren't sure where it came from. Try as you might to shut it out, other books will shape what you write. I prefer to cut out extraneous influences.
6. I like to find out things for myself, starting from basic principles – and in book terms, that generally means characters developed from scratch, preferably. Writing for me is a process of exploring the world and the people in it. It's my inner journalist at work. So I don't want to see how anyone else writes books. That's like reading a travel guide instead of visiting a country.
7. When I pick up any book, fact or fiction, I end up editing and proof-reading it. I can't help it. So there's no diversion or relaxation in it for me.
So there you go. Like Groucho Marx and the flies*, I hope we have an arrangement – I don't read, because that's your job, and writing the stuff is mine. And if I hadn't told you, you'd never have known, would you? QED.
(* "I have an agreement with the houseflies. The flies don't practice law and I don't walk on the ceiling ." From At The Circus.)
Q. Why do the wess'har think the way they do?
(Originally posted on my LiveJournal.)
On to the main question: why do the wess'har behave the way they do? A buddy at Lucas asked me if I actually liked the wess'har in City of Pearl.
I do like them, but I don't always agree with them. Well, I don't always agree with any of my characters, if at all. They do their own thing, which is why they work as characters and bounce off each other - or collide. The gulf between human logic and wess'har logic becomes even more apparent in The World Before.
I found I could either think wess'har, and it made sense, or think human, and that made sense, but I couldn't cross between the two at what looked like the same point on the road. Which, I suppose, is what aliens are all about - not just funny foreheads and tentacles. They really don't think like us.
When I built the wess'har, I started from their original niche in their environment and the evolutionary set-up was one where the co-operative and symbiotic species had the survival edge on the competitive ones at a critical point in the history of Eqbas Vorhi. I wanted to look at ways that a species could become intelligent (by our common definition, which you probably already know I think is bollocks) and technologically advanced without going through a phase of exploiting other species that didn't want to be exploited.
The wess'har evolved alongside the ussissi: the ussissi were burrowing animals, and the proto-wess'har lived in their tunnels. While the ussissi unearthed tubers and stuff they couldn't eat, the wess'har could, and in turn they provided the muscle to protect the ussissi from predators. Hence their mindsets: the ussissi are still instinctive companion animals, able to work with other species, and the wess'har are prone to pitching in on someone else's behalf and aren't really sure when to give up and say, "Okay, tosser, you asked for it - you're on your own now."
The wess'har take on culpability is confusing but it has its own logic, and personally I don't agree with it, being a great believer in the Burke adage. But they don't care what you think, only what you do: something has to happen before they'll act on it. They're reactive in many ways, which is possibly why they've developed two modes of behaviour - as Frankland says in Crossing The Line, they're "chilled or punching".
They have elaborate and involuntary scent signals, too, so everyone knows what their neighbour is feeling and there was never any evolutionary advantage for them in deception, nor any point in warning behaviour to avoid a fight. They always got by on muscle. So, no concept of warning, deception or escalation, but a reliance on force, and you have a species that look rather like human psychopaths by our standards. Even the dominance hormone emitted by the alpha females isn't a warning signal but a practical demonstration that the individual ought to be listened to because they have more of the aggressively protective instinct - jask - to win against external threats.
And it's also why they're not good at compromise, because they have no real concept of rubbing along: it's either a full partnership or it isn't. They avoid what they can't co-operate with. If the unco-operable insist on advancing, then all that's left is confrontation.
At each major evolutionary point, wess'har took the opposite path to humans. One key area was how the wess'har pass on their genes. They reproduce sexually, which is one route, but some years back I was taken with the idea of horizontal transmission as practised by some bacteria: and that means, basically, that they can swap genes with other individuals by contact, and not hang around to see what turns out in offspring. That was a key idea for me: it gave them a radically different reproductive strategy to humans, and made the wess'har genome much more malleable.
Wess'har are predisposed to seek to swap genes with each other, hence the scene in Crossing The Line where Mestin is wondering what mates Nevyan will choose and what genetic qualities her line might benefit from. Effectively, they're genetically engineering themselves the whole time through what we would think of as copulation - oursan - except oursan is quite separate from their reproductive system. The more numerous males gestate, so the females need only to be able to conceive and then protect their investment by defending their harem of males and their offspring.
Sharing their genes during their lifetime emphasises their tendency to co-operation and consensus, because they have a visible genetic stake in their whole community. But when they meet an exploitative species that's built on looking for an individual edge - i.e. the monkey boys from Earth - then it's ai caramba time. It's destined to end in tears.
Q. Why do the wess'har dislike humans so much?
(Originally published on my LiveJournal.)
Monkey Boys 1: Everyone Else 0
Okay, the £100K in used random notes wasn't left in the phone booth as I specified, so you get day two of the FAQ. This is an explanation of why humans don't look so hot as role models in my fiction. This story goes back a while.
Some years ago my ex-husband - hereinafter referred to as H2, to distinguish him from H1 - was very unhappy about a SF novel where the aliens were the threat and the gallant humans (and their sidekicky but inferior alien allies) blew the Bad Aliens to Kingdom Come. H2, who was both a prolific SF reader and a man of science, had drunk his fill of this ethos and was spitting nails about it. "Why are humans always the good guys?" he ranted. "It's institutional xenophobia. Crap."
Hmm, I thought, wiping the foam from the kitchen table. If I ever write SF (and I had no plans to do so then) maybe I could ask that very question...
So I did.
I've had comments that the humans in CoP and CTL - even the good guys, murky as they are - are extreme cases, and that most humans aren't grasping or competitive. Well, of course the human cast of the wess'har wars are extreme: extreme people are the ones who actually do things, and leave everything behind on a one-way ticket, and take huge risks, and shape events. That's why they got on the ship to start with. Normal, undriven people tend to say things like, "I don't think I feel like invading a small Third World nation today, dear. I'll just pop down to Sainsbury's and get some tea bags."
But pretty well all life on Earth is competitive, although not as visibly to urban humans. It's the way species are built and we're probably among the most competitive, although plants are bloody scary. This isn't a value judgement. Put aside the notions of morality, and what's good and what's bad, and just look at it neutrally. We've clawed our way to the top of the food chain because we can manipulate our environment in various ways, and so we can move into lots of different niches. When we move in, other species have to move out, or become those that depend in part on us. And that's all I mean by competitive. Every time we as individuals do something that disadvantages other species because our needs matter more, then we're indulging in competition. (By the way, used any disposable chopsticks lately? You might not even know when you're doing it.)
So, spurred on by H2's diatribe against this certain novel (and I forget the title) I've tried to turn the issue inside out. It's a journalistic device most hacks are familiar with: take a widely held belief that is almost invisible through lack of challenge and ask, "So...is this guy really a saint?"
The whole concept of alienness is frequently debated in SF. Just how alien can you make an alien and still make them intelligible to readers? The answer is that if they're that alien, you can't. Novels are explorations of the human condition, read solely by humans (as far as we know) and so they need common reference points. You take it as far as you can, and in my case that means a perspective that doesn't assume humans are the good guys, or that their lives count more than anyone else's.
This is, in most human cultures, anathema. It strikes me not only as a competitive view - Monkey Boys first, which makes sense in evolutionary terms - but as something that has its roots in Western religion. Since H2's rant, I've made a point of seeking out people who would describe themselves as data rational - usually people with a science or business background - and asking them if they think humans are special and why.
The interesting thing is that apart from the obvious biological imperative to look after your own kind (and we don't do that very well) their arguments have boiled down to one that's quite emotional and would be called soul by those people more up-front about their beliefs. Culture and language are frequently cited as making us more worthy, but none of that is a reason: it's what we like about ourselves. It's wholly subjective. There's no intrinsic worth in either - let alone an unbreakable definition - other than the ones that humans place upon them. We seem to make sure that those definitions exclude rather than include.
It's all unexpectedly fluffy and, oddly, I've heard it more frequently from men than from women. (That could simply be because more men end up in the data-rational professions). None has been able to give me a list of real hard facts to support their view - just feelings. Okay, they're entitled to those, but the data rational - and I'd be in that category - can be highly subjective: ironically, the most common dismissal they have of people who don't agree with them is that they're being emotional. It's not universal - Peter Watts covered the species issue brilliantly in his blog some time back - but it's a definite pattern.
But we don't have as many hard facts at our disposal as we like to think.
So that's why - eventually - I took that fascinating paradox and used it as one of the bases for City of Pearl. If you're going to look at humans from the outside, it seemed a pretty good place to start. Some people are disturbed by that: once you start questioning the most basic tenets of our existence, you have to wonder what you're left with. Some people aren't: they either take it as read that aliens would see us a lot less lovingly than we see ourselves, or they actively enjoy seeing the universal order questioned.
To the wess'har, we're just another variety of meatbag driven by chemicals and genes. It isn't finding that we're not alone that Earth's big culture shock: it's experiencing what it really means to be just another animal. This is what I mean in the recurring theme that I use of lines - where we place the barrier between what's us, and so is treated one way, and what's not us, and can be treated another.
In the end, the question of whether humans - or individual characters - are "good" or "bad" is just that, a question. You have to reach your own conclusions when you read the books. There's no easy answer in CoP or CTL, as several reviewers have observed. And there aren't any messages or subliminal tricks in there either - I'm just continuing to ask questions that often don't get asked, and that can be uncomfortable.
And as you can see, even ex-husbands prove useful in the fullness of time.
Q. Are you going to resolve Delta Squad's story and tell us what happens to Sev? (Republic Commando's Delta Squad, not Gears' Delta Squad.)
Alas, no. I can't. This entry from my blog from October 2008 explains why. And if I can't take Sev's story any further, then there's not much more I can do with Delta, either.
A word about Sev. Now that ORDER 66 is out in the wild, and Kleenex sales are probably doing well as a result, I have to answer a few questions for readers.
Don't worry - no spoilers yet, because it's way too soon for all those folks in the UK who can't get the book yet, let alone everyone who's still reading it in the US. But I'm getting a lot of mail from those who have finished it, and many of them want to know something. What happens to Sev when the saga continues as IMPERIAL COMMANDO?
Actually, this isn't a new question, and I've been answering it since 2005 in interviews and on con panels. It bears repeating now. Sorry, but I can't take Sev beyond the end of his story arc in the RepCom game. His fate won't feature in IMPERIAL COMMANDO: 501st or any other book for the foreseeable future. I don't want anyone building up expectations and then having them dashed after waiting until August next year find out. I've been up front about this from the start.
Sev is LucasArts' character, and - very sensibly - they want to leave their options open for the future, in case they ever do another game featuring Delta Squad. No, I have no idea if that'll ever happen, so please don't bug LucasArts about it. This is just normal industry common sense about not shutting any doors that you don't have to. Every games company would do - should do - exactly the same thing.
So I can't take Sev's story beyond the end of the game, where he's still MIA. That's all there is to it. I've gone as far as I can with him, and I'll miss him, just like you will. But this is the reality of working in a shared universe, with products that have very different timetables and needs. Games are huge multi-million dollar investments, and it would be plain daft to paint yourself into a corner by letting key characters go off on a separate tangent in another medium that might stymie you if you ever decide you want to return to that world.
It's not as if you'll be short of characters to worry about in 501st, after all. There'll be more than enough psychotic snipers to go around in the new galactic order.
I get asked this a fair bit. Well, you asked, so you'd better be ready for the answer. Because it's not funny, on-message Karen talking now. This is about serious stuff - psychological underpinnings of attitudes.
And "you" here means - if the cap fits, honey, then wear it.
No sane human can hate someone who doesn't actually exist. From a writer's perspective, the more super-powers characters acquire, the harder it is to develop logical story arcs and true human drama...but I don't have any real feelings about fictional characters that stay with me once I step out of character-point-of-view-writing mode and get on with my life. The characters don't exist. I recognise, though, when they press a button in me and I see they're a conduit or a cypher for stuff I don't like in the real world. I'm very self aware. When a character pisses me off - not as a writer, but as a person - I ask: "Okay, what does this tell me about myself?"
I can do that, however uncomfortable it is. It's the reason I can change my mind if I'm presented with new facts. I recognise I don't have a permanent right answer in my head, and that my own subconscious needs to be dragged out into the light of day on a regular basis.
My real problem, then, is not with fictional Jedi, but with the people who refuse to believe they can do no wrong. And by that I mean the people who believe it, not the harmless majority who just enjoy Jedi-centric stories as entertainment. I know just how deeply held that conviction is by some folks, and when those people try to argue a certain specific point with me, I can see that their line between fiction and reality is way too blurred. I can see their real views on life surfacing. I know where my real views impinge on the unreal, so I can see it in others.
The fiction you regularly choose, and the passion with which you defend it, tells me an awful lot about what goes on in your head. Very few people deliberately choose to read material - fiction or otherwise - that doesn't reinforce their real-life worldview. Most people don't set out to be alienated or offended by their reading material. They tend to settle with what they like - what fits their comfort zone. So if you get pretty het up about anyone suggesting the Jedi might have made a few immoral decisions - or anything else, come to that - chances are it relates to something you actually believe in for real. It wouldn't upset you otherwise. Would it?
I start to back away from Jedi-worshippers at that point. I'm troubled by deferential forelock-tugging to supposed genetic superiors at the best of times, which is why I personally find the genetic Jedi concept sinister, but there's an especially disturbing kind of arse-kissing that makes me recoil. It's the kind that says the Jedi are always justified when they do seriously bad shit, because - well, they're the good guys, and what good guys do is never bad, right?
Well, I worry that it's even less naively benign than that in adult readers. Like the big guy in black said: look into your heart. You know it to be true. Okay, you've been told they're the good guys. If you're a child, I'll cut you some slack. But if you're not - and the majority of Jedi-nutters are old enough to have the vote - I have to ask if you believe everything you're told as obediently and unquestioningly as that in real life. Because if you do, you scare me.
Now, if you like Jedi because Luke is basically an ordinary guy who finds the hero in himself, great. If you like lightsabers and impossible martial arts moves, bully for you. If it's just fun for you, and you don't feel mortally wounded when someone suggests that the Jedi might not actually be completely perfect, fine. You pass the harmless test.
But once you're past the age of puberty and you start arguing passionately with me that the Jedi were right to accept a slave army of cloned human beings and use them in war, and cloned humans aren't proper humans like us, and it was too bad the clones died, and the Jedi had no choice - well, sweetheart, I want to run a mile from you. Not the Jedi, who - just to remind you - are a figment of various writers' imaginations, just like the clones. You. If I see that you really mean it, and you're making excuses in your own mind for the Jedi just following orders on that delicate point, then you scare the living crap out of me. For real.
Because it's clear to me that you believe deep down in real life that some human lives are worth less than others, and so it's okay to end them. Whether you realise that or not. Because if you don't believe it at that fundamental level, then why do you get so damned angry with me when I rock the boat of your fictional beliefs? It's just a kids' fantasy story. You could shrug and move on. But the fact that you rage about it means it's hit a real nerve in you, in the core of your real beliefs.
So, either you're nuts, and you genuinely believe that an evil wizard who shoots lightning out of his fingers is threatening your well-being, or you might just have some ugly supremacist attitudes to your fellow man that you can't acknowledge even to yourself.
Am I making you feel uncomfortable? I hope so.
I'm sure you think you're a nice decent person who's kind to animals, recycles faithfully, and fills in tax returns honestly. Maybe you believe in God, too. But to me, you're someone who harbours a vile and degrading belief in the concept of Untermensch - the idea that some humans aren't human at all, and we can do as we like with them, for whatever arbitrary value we put on the words "real human." You're looking for ways to sift your kind of human from the humans who don't matter, and who can be consigned to the fate of animals. In fact, if you use the phrase "real humans" at all, my case is proven.
That belief in a league table of humans - and the casual acceptance of it by nice people who were kind to animals and filled in their tax forms on time - led to the enslavement and murder of millions.
It's slave-owner-think: it's Nazi-think. And yes, I bloody well hate it, and all those who think it.
It's not about Jedi - who don't even exist. It's about you.
Q. Did you base the Mandalorians on the Spartans?
No. I didn't.
I really wish history was taught properly - okay, taught at all - in schools these days, because history is the big storehouse that I plunder for fiction. It breaks my heart to hear from young readers who have no concept even of recent history - the last fifty years - and so can't see the parallels in my books. You don't have to be a historian to read my novels, but you'll get a lot more out of them if you explore history just a little more. Watch a history channel. Read a few books. Visit some museums. Because history is not "then" - it's "now." Everything we experience today is the product of what's happened before.
But back to Mandos. Not every military society is based on Sparta, strange as that may seem. In fact, the Mandos don't have much in common with the real Spartans at all. (Forget the Hollywood crapola on Sparta - check out the serious historical research. In fact, ignore every historical movie ever made, even the good ones, but especially ignore the ones starring Mel Gibson.) Seeing as there wasn't much established about our favourite armour-wearing lads and lasses when I came to the SW table, I had a nearly blank page to play with - all I had to work with was that they were once nomadic mercenaries, they adopted some kind of culture from non-human aliens, they had clans, their leader seemed to be a bit irrelevant to their daily lives (Jango was never around much...) and one of their leaders, Shysa, had a cheesy pseudo-Scots-Irish accent in the comics...
A slightly anarchic, non-centralized, fightin' people? Sounded pretty Celtic to me. Since I went down that path, I've learned more about the Celts (especially the Picts), and the more I learn, the more I realise what a dead ringer for Mandos they are. But more of how that happened later...
Celts are a good fit with the kind of indomitable, you-can't-kill-'em-off vibe of the Mandos. Reviled by Rome as ignorant savages with no culture or science, and only fit for slaughter or conquest, the Celts were in fact much more civilized than Rome even by modern standards. They also kicked Roman arse on the battlefield, and were very hard to keep in line, so Rome did what all lying, greedy superpowers do when challenged: they demonised and dehumanised the enemy. (They still used them in their army, of course, but that's only to be expected.)
While Rome was still leaving its unwanted babies to die on rubbish dumps - a perfectly acceptable form of family planning to this "civilisation" - and keeping women as chattels devoid of rights, the barbarian Celts had a long-standing legal system that not only gave women what we would think of as equal rights, but also protected the rights of the elderly, children, and the disabled. They had a road network across Europe and worldwide trade long before the Romans ever got their act together. And their science - well, their astronomical calculations were so sophisticated that it takes computers to do the same stuff today.
So - not barbarians. Just a threat to the empire, a culture that wouldn't let the Pax Romana roll over it without a fight. (Except the French tribes, who did roll over, and were regarded by the Germanic Celts as being as bad as the Romans. Suck on that, Asterix...)
Broad brush-stroke time; Celts were not a centralized society but more a network of townships and tribes, a loose alliance of clans who had their own internal spats, but when faced with some uppity outsider would come together to drive off the common threat. You couldn't defeat them by cutting off the head. There was no head to cut off. To the centralized, formal, rather bureauratic Romans, for whom the city of Rome was the focus of the whole empire, this was a big does-not-compute. The Celts were everything they didn't understand. And we fear what we don't understand, and we kill what we fear.
Anyway, Mandos....once I took a single concept - in this case, the idea of clans that operated on a loose alliance system, like the Celts - the rest grew organically. I didn't plan it out in detail from the start. I just asked myself what a culture of nomadic warriors would value, how they would need to operate to survive, and it all grew inexorably by logical steps. The fact that Mandos ended up as very much like the Celts is proof that the technique of evolving a character or species - find the niche, then work out what fits it - works every time. It creates something very realistic, because that's how real people and real societies develop.
So all I can say about Mandos and Spartans is that the average Mando would probably tell a Spartan to go and put some clothes on, and stop looking like such a big jessie.
Q. Why is there a Verpine in Hard Contact? (A note on continuity, and understanding that it isn't real. Really. It isn't. No causality.)
(Originally posted on my LiveJournal blog, 2005.)
Continuity. I tried to stay away from it, but it grabbed me again. We fell to discussing this issue on the media tie-in writers mailing list, a large group of authors who cover everything from CSI, Monk, Buffy, The OC and Alias to B5, Trek and Star Wars. We juggle games, novels, comics, TV, movies...you name it. It makes your nose bleed. And it ain't easy.
Many of us shared tales about glitches in continuity, largely beyond our control, that earned us angry letters and e-mails from fans. When you're busting a gut at the keyboard for 16 hours a day, as many of us do, then the suggestion that we don't give a damn or can't be bothered to check facts is actually pretty annoying.
I'll stand up here and say that most fans are almost universally very laid back about the whole continuity issue and understand it exceptionally well. It's a running gag between writers and fans a lot of the time, which is fun. I'll just say the words Verpine shatter gun and I'll get a nod and a wink from fans, and more on that later.
But for anyone who hasn't sat back and considered what continuity really means, here's my take on it, and why you can never, ever, make it perfect. My colleague Ryan Kaufman has blogged eloquently on why listening to the notes makes you unable to hear the symphony, but I'm not musical, so I have to make sense of this in my robotic way by synthesis of data.
It's all about causality.
In the real world, events trigger other events. Weather changes: a crop fails. A crop fails, and a civilisation falls. A civilisation falls, and another has the room to grow. And so on. Every action causes and is linked inextricably to the fabric of reality. And - as far as we can perceive - time is linear. Everything happens in order because - again, as far as we can perceive - that's the only way it can happen at all.
Given time and technology, historians and archaeologists can look back and dig and examine and discover, and piece that chain - or rather three-dimensional web - together. And they still get it wrong, and have to revise their ideas, although they do spit and bitch about that at times. It will, eventually, make sense - because it has happened, and has only been able to happen because other events took place.
Cut now to the artificial world of the shared universe.
There is no causality. Even the most painstaking construction can't recreate the infinitely complex interaction of reality, and so things happen that you have to retcon - that's author-speak for retroactive continuity, i.e. adding bits to the past because something has happened in the present or future.
And this is why I cut Dr. Who a bit of slack as a Time Lord, because it's a right bastard some days to manage a universe. And here's why.
1. Fiction time is not linear.
A franchise can span millennia. One day we can be writing 2000 years before a critical date, the next 40 years after. And all points in between. There is no real history to be uncovered, because it never happened - except as how we create it on the fly each day.
2. Reality (or God) is one author working alone.
There are hundreds of creatives building franchises every day, from comics to games to books to movies to...thousands of individual pieces of the puzzle. Despite Herculean efforts by full-time content managers, tiny glitches creep in: and there are always gaps. Events are not tied together by reality, by causality, and so there is no inevitable force that stops us doing what can't happen. We only have our memories, our brains and our databases to tie it up as logically as we can. And we have to do that every bloody hour. I might write a chapter or a script today that will send my colleagues scurrying around to knit those "facts" into something they're creating. And they don't even know I've written it yet.
3. Mistakes happen.
God might be omniscient and omnipotent, but we ain't. That is all.
4. Fiction has to make sense, but reality can do as it likes.
I bore people senseless with this. Reality can be illogical. Fiction has to have its own internal logic, and reality can get in the way of that, as any would-be writer who has tried to incorporate a real event into their work finds out very fast. The edges don't join up with the rest of the story.
5. Retconning is not evil or weak or dishonest.
Historians and archaeologists and even scientists ret-con all the time, and they even admit that some things are so wrong they have to be removed from the record. (Or good ones do, at least.) As new data becomes available, they revise their theories. They accept there are gaps in knowledge. And so must we grunts creating in the fiction universe, except our goalposts are always shifting. As long as we admit to it, and do our best to make it as sensible as we can, then it's part of the process of fiction every bit as much as it is the real world. Sometimes it's to correct errors, but mostly it's because there was no information about a topic at all and we had to fill the gap. Discovery, folks: just like history.
6. Fans don't know it all either.
Actually, there are gaps in the fictional universe, just as there are in your knowledge of the real world. Fans do have encyclopaedic knowledge, but like authors, they don't ever have the complete picture, and none of us ever can. So just because something hasn't been mentioned by a certain date in the timeline, it doesn't mean it doesn't exist before then.
Rant over. And I'm glad I don't work on tie-ins to a weekly TV series, which is continuity plate spinning on a cosmic scale.
So, back to the subject of Verpine shatter guns...and stop giggling. I shall have the last word on this if it kills me.
The fact that they're first mentioned a long way down a game timeline doesn't mean they didn't exist before. And this is why we will continue to use them prior to that date.
To build guns that good, the Verpine must have been making them for quite a while. Like any manufacturer, they make various models. Verpine is almost certainly a loose description, like 9mm or Heckler and Kock, and you know how many variations there are on those and how long they've been making them. And, as Verps are pretty rare trade secrets of some badass mercs and heavies, there ain't an Argos catalogue for them.
So I have no problem with being allowed to use a Verp in a book decades before they're mentioned in a game timeline. Because I can explain very logically why it can be so, and their existence doesn't conflict with any other existing continuity. In fact, it makes better sense, especially to someone like me who's spent a long time reporting on defence procurement and the evolution of kit and ordnance.
So there. I shall have my Verp. And, as it can punch a hole through anything except enhanced Katarn Mk II armour (yes, I added that, too...) then don't push me, man...it might go off.