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Sunday, June 11, 2006

Guest Editorial: Mike Stackpole on Star Wars

If you're a Star Wars fan and you don't know the name Michael Stackpole -- how'd you manage that? Not only did Michael create the hugely successful X-Wing: Rogue Squadron book series and script the Dark Horse Comics series of the same name, he's also published some 38 novels so far, including eight set in the Star Wars universe. And we're not talking media spinoff hackwork, here; his Star Wars novels have bumped Stephen King off the NY Times bestseller list.

Not half bad, if you ask me, for a kid from Wausau.

Michael's personal site is and he writes an excellent writer's newsletter called The Secrets (subscription only, I'm afraid); he even has a podcast. In short, the kid has done pretty much everything I'd wished I'd done, if only life hadn't gotten in the way.

But never mind that. This month we're talking about Star Wars, and so, without further ado, I will hand the microphone over to Mr. Stackpole...

The impact working for Star Wars™ has on a writer's career—heck, a writer's life—cannot be understated. Way back when, in 1994, I was driving from Maine to Vermont with my father after a family fishing trip, and he asked me, "So, what does this Star Wars stuff mean for your career?"

I thought for a second and then replied, "Oh, it's a big deal."

Naïve, even then. I could not have guessed how big a deal it would be. I knew Timothy Zahn's novels had hit the New York Times Bestseller list, but even that was kind of a hazy concept. I'd figured that maybe once or twice, in the twilight of my career, I might have a book hit the list. I didn't understand that in the space of four years I'd have eight books hit, and that one of them would even knock a Stephen King novel off the list. (Okay, it was only for a week, but you take the victories where you can find them, right?)

From the start, however, I knew something special was going on. The week after I'd been offered the contracts I was in New Orleans having lunch with a friend. We were getting caught up and I told him about the Star Wars books. It was just a conversation between friends so we never used names. Didn't need to.

A couple from the next table gets up to leave. The man slides a piece of paper and a pen onto our table. "You're doing Star Wars stuff. Can I have your autograph? I love Star Wars." It didn't matter to him who the heck I was. I was playing with Star Wars, and that was enough.

I'd been a Star Wars fan from the start, but somehow I'd missed how deep the love for Star Wars was. A friend sent me some snippets of conversation on a usenet group about the Star Wars novels. A fan wondered, "Who the heck is this Stackpole guy, and why are they giving him X-wing novels?"

One of my BattleTech readers replied, "You guys are so lucky you're getting him. Our loss is your gain."

And even before I'd written word one, I got a long letter from a die-hard Wedge fan explaining to me all the things I needed to do and avoid doing. This wasn't a cranky letter, it was just a straight-forward, analytical letter that expressed a lot of love for the universe in general, and Wedge very specifically.

Writing the books was a lot of fun. I love the universe and being able to play around inside it was great. I very much enjoyed the freedom that Lucasfilm allowed me to invent characters and write stories within tiny niches. They were most generous in that way, and others.

After I'd gotten the job I went up to Skywalker Ranch and was having lunch with Sue Rostoni and Lucy Wilson. Lucy asked if I'd ever done any work in comics. I replied that I'd always wanted to, but none of the deals I'd worked on had come to fruition. She made a note on a napkin and the conversation moved on.

Three months later I got a call from Ryder Windham of Dark Horse Comics. "We want to do an X-wing series, and Lucasfilm said we had to talk to you." I was floored, and very happy. Working on the X-wing series was a lot of fun, especially when I got to script the comics and work ties back and forth between them, my novels, and the new books Tim Zahn was doing at the time.

Getting to work with Tim was also a great joy of writing for Star Wars. Tim and I had met several times before I started writing Star Wars. Reading his novels as research renewed my respect for his work. Our writing styles and sense of the Star Wars universe are highly compatible, which made our official and unofficial collaborations very easy. We have a lot of respect for each other's characters and were able to keep the characterizations consistent—which usually is a problem with big collaborative projects.

Working with Tim on the story Side Trip is one of my fondest memories. Granted, it may be a writer thing, but in the middle of this story which we co-plotted and then split into pieces for the writing, I got to have Corran Horn (in disguise) in a landspeeder with Grand Admiral Thrawn (in disguise) talking about the state of art in the universe. Completely surreal and yet appropriate for the two of them—neither of whom ever realized they'd met. It was kind of like imagining Rommel and Patton chatting at some diplomatic reception in Sweden during the 1912 Olympics.

Aside from getting to work with friends, how does Star Wars change your life? Well, I tend to get emails from 6th grade boys. Lots of it. Rogue Squadron, as it turns out, is often the first book they've ever read all by themselves. This is unbelievably cool. A number of them credit their love of reading to that book, which is also very humbling. I mean, reading is huge in my life, and to be credited with opening that door for others is a great honor.

Book signings have changed, and in a fascinating way. If I do one and the publicity lists me as writing Star Wars, I'll have a solid 45 minutes worth of customers at the start. If I'm just listed as an author, ten minutes, maybe twenty. Mind you, that's not a complaint, just an interesting observation.

Another big deal is foreign sales. My agent has found it much easier to sell my original novels into countries where the Star Wars novels are in print. And I must admit that it's very cool to get a copy of a novel in a foreign language—a language I can't even recognize, much less read.

Over and above all that, working with Star Wars is magic. Even folks who are snobby and want to look down on me because I write science fiction suddenly change their tune when they hear I've written for Star Wars. They become kids again, remembering when they saw the movies and used to fall asleep with a phalanx of Star Wars action-figures on their nightstand. Star Wars is a phenomenon that bonds us all.

And as special as it is for me, for some folks it is even more special. An artist who lives in New Mexico told me that when Star Wars came out, she was living in East Germany. They were not allowed to see the film there, so she and friends went on vacation to Czechoslovakia to see it. They were blown away, and coming out of the film, she and her friends resolved that they would escape East Germany.

And later did.

So, Star Wars really does have the power to change lives. It's changed mine, definitely for the better. To have been able to give back to the universe that entertained me for so long is a highlight of my career. If I had it to do all over again, I would, without hesitation. After all, when you have a chance to make so many people happy, how can you walk away from it?

You can't, which is why the Force will always be with us.

-- Mike Stackpole

Friday, June 09, 2006

Recommended Sites

One of the great ironies of the creative life is that very few creative people are content just doing what they can do. Guitarists always want to be singers, singers want to be actors, actors want to be directors, comedians want to be serious dramatists, and poets want to be politicians. In my case I'm doubly cursed, as I set out to be a musican but ended up as a writer -- but deep in my heart of hearts, I've always had a secret yen to be a photographer.

To be honest; as a photographer, I'm a moderately competent amateur. This being Friday, though, I'd like to share with you some of the web sites that I find impressive.

FAIR WARNING! If you're not careful, it's possible to spend hours browsing some of these sites!

First up: my old friend, Oleg Volk, whose work I continue to find absolutely amazing. He's the one responsible for that "Bethke with a crappy goatee from the Mirror Universe" photo that adorns my web site. For those of you who are wondering what little Nica looks like now that she's all growed up and graduated from college, you can find pictures of her on Oleg's site... somewhere. Oleg, of course, and despite his brilliance with a camera, yearns to be a writer.

Next up: new friend John Sundlof, who I met through what is possibly the funniest eBay auction listing since the famous "SELLING MY EX-WIFE'S G-D D-MN BEANIE BABY COLLECTION!" The whole story (which is not in the eBay listing) is the saga of a canoe trip that starts in northern Wisconsin and ends in Hell, and for some reason I keep hearing "Dueling Banjos" in my head every time I read it... But in any case, check out John's site, and if you're looking for used camera and darkroom equipment, check out his other, non-funny, eBay listings.

I can't claim to know Karen Nakamura personally, but I find her site an inspiration. If you've got the time to do some serious browsing and vicariously visit places you've never been and people you've never met, check it out. Matt Denton is another person I don't know who's put some inspiring work up on the web. Check it out -- but be advised, the site is not entirely "work safe."

Finally, for a truly strange experience, check out this site. The unnamed person who maintains it has a hobby of finding old, exposed but undeveloped film in cameras in flea markets and such, and trying to develop and print it. Some of the images that emerge are truly haunting. If you're looking for a story idea, you might try looking at one of these pictures and wondering just who this person was, what their story was, or what it was they were looking at over the photographer's left shoulder.


Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Publication News: Star Wars On Trial

I'm still insanely busy with other work, but I thought it was time to announce (and only a week later than I'd originally meant to) this month's exciting publication news. Star Wars On Trial, a collection of critical essays regarding You Know What, co-edited by David Brin and Matt Stover and featuring not just one but two utterly brilliant essays by yours truly, either has been or is very soon to be released!

Can't say for sure; haven't actually seen the finished book myself. But the cover art sure looks nice --

-- and the book was a really terrific read in galleys. There's a lot of good stuff in there: so much so, in fact, that it's hard to pick a favorite (beyond my own parts, of course). "The Son of Skywalker Must Not Become a Jackass," by Scott Lynch; "Brain-Dead Chimpanzees Are Eating My Shelf Space," by Laura Resnick; "Stop Her! She's Got A Gun!" by Jeanne Cavelos; there's not one clunker in the lot. My personal favorite is probably "The Kessel Run," by our old friend and Ranting Room regular Robert Metzger, but even the editorial shticks and connective pieces that Brin and Stover worked in between between the essays are really good.

This book, I should mention, had its genesis in Brin's infamous article for Salon, Star Wars Despots vs Star Trek Populists, in which Brin argues that the real villain of the whole Star Wars saga is Yoda. You can debate this point all you like -- and apparently the fans have been doing so for years -- but anybody who can characterize the Master Muppet as a "vicious little oven mitt" definitely has my interest. I highly recommend that you read Brin's original essay.

Then buy our book. As David Brin says:
Shipping in June 2006: Star Wars on Trial : Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Debate the Most Popular Science Fiction Films of All Time (BenBella Books Smart Pop series) by David Brin and Matthew Woodring Stover, with two dozen wonderfully articulate authors "testifying" either for the prosecution or the defense. Is SW fantasy disguised as science fiction? Does the series spread doom-pessimism about democracy? Has it been a let-down since "The Empire Strikes Back"? Does it even make any sense? Pick up a copy and be prepared for a wild, extravagant "trial" - brash and entertaining and downright fun!

Okay, so I was hoping for something other than marketing copy when I asked David to contribute a paragraph or two, but several of the other writers I've asked to contribute their thoughts on Star Wars have come through with some marvelous guest editorials, and I'll be running them in this space in the days to come. I've also come up with some fantastic Star Wars-related prizes for this month's writing contest!

Now I just need to figure out what the contest is...