NYCC: Star Wars Authors’ Roundtable

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One of my favorite panels at NYCC this year was one put on by Lucasfilm: “Star Wars Presents: A Writers Roundtable”, with panelists and Star Wars authors Timothy Zahn, James Luceno, Chuck Wendig, E.K. Johnston, Kieron Gillen, and Charles Soule. The moderators were Jennifer Heddle and Michael Siglain from Lucasfilm. I had a blast hearing all of the panelists speak about the Star Wars stories they’ve been involved with, their writing process, and other inspiring authors and books that helped them along the way. All quotes are paraphrased for the sake of clarity and grammar for the written form.

The first question asked was about science fiction influences in the lives of the authors.

Tim: My science fiction influences were Larry Niven, Theodore Sturgeon, (and others). What I’m reading now is a biography of Clausewitz. Someone said he was similar to Thrawn.

Chuck: Some of my science fiction influences come from (points to Zahn). Some of my current is “The Expanse”.

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Charles: What I’m reading now is “Life Debt”.

James: Elmer Leanard is someone I enjoy reading. I’m reading now about safaris that were taking place in Kenya in the 1920s-’30s because I just got back from Africa.

EK: I’m reading like four books now.

Jen: How does your writing process work? Some get up in the early morning and write for an hour, some sit at a desk, some are more free flowing….

Kieron: I generally try to write five pages every day minimum in the morning.

EK: I tend to think about it for a few months, then go to my brother’s cabin and hammer it out for a few weeks.

James: I listen to guitar, and then get to writing.

Jen: That’s refreshing for those of us who don’t like to get up at 6am.

Charles: I get up at 6am…. I’m writing a lot of different things, so I have to be organized. I have a bunch of different notebooks that are color coordinated. I go to coffee shops and bars to write, and I’ll do a lot of notes to figure out what I do. Then when I get to writing the script I sit down and write it straight through, like 5-7 hours.

Chuck: I have a five year old, and I have an office in my house. For people who don’t have kids… they don’t know that children don’t understand the differences between work and play. My kid always wants to play, and I always want to as well, so that’s a problem. So, I had a shed in the woods built, and I get up at 6am and go there and write. Or murder hobos or something.

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Tim: I get up at 5:30am. I get breakfast, then work until I hit a number of words, or can’t think anymore, and have to take a break. I aim for a 1,000 to 1,500 a day. I know that’s low for some writers.

Jen: What about Star Wars is particularly inspiring to you as a writer – something that’s a touchstone for inspiration?

James: That’s the question I didn’t want you to ask! *laughs* I still find the Star Wars music itself very inspiring. I listen to a thousand different versions of it: symphonic, rock and roll, etc.

Charles: For me it’s about working in the Star Wars galaxy. My dad would tell us stories of what would happen after “A New Hope” and “The Empire Strikes Back” came out. I like to contribute to what I think of as bedtime stories, stories from my childhood where I can continue the cycle, which is very star warsy itself.

Chuck: My four year old turned into a massive Star Wars fan at around that age. I was inspired by him being so excited, by watching how he interacted with this world, and it reminded me of how I did. There’s a refreshing component to this recycling of generations getting into Star Wars.

Tim: You live long enough and little bits of irony drip into your life. Some of the music I listened to was from “A New Hope” and “The Empire Strikes Back”. I would think, if George Lucas could come from nowhere and make Star Wars, then I could to.

Kieron: It’s almost academic. The first I saw was “The Empire Strikes Back”. It was a part of my gut and a part of my mind.

EK: I loved playing Leia as a girl. Then when I was fourteen when “The Phantom Menace” came out, so it was all Padme for me. She had friends who were good at shooting and fashion, so yeah! *audience laughs*

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Jen: What is it about Star Wars in general that’s inspiring for everyone? It’s a word that’s often used for Star Wars, and not always for all pop culture properties.

Kieron: Well it’s the Death Star and the Emperor! *audience laughs*

Chuck: it’s that small ppl can change the entire galaxy. SW teaches you with the right friends and a rat trap space ship you can save the galaxy and change the world.

Tim: It’s a story of love, sacrifice, courage… universal themes we all want to hear about. It connects with everyone.

James: It gives us a historical perspective. Even little things can have a huge impact on the Star Wars.

EK: It’s also super fun! I’m indoctrinating my nephews, and I remember how fun it was for me!

Kieron: I analyze writing by thinking ‘is this big enough for Star Wars’? Star Wars is very big.

Charles: It’s a template that didn’t really exist before Star Wars, except maybe in “Dune”. Star Wars was able to bring in an adventure element. It builds up and up in excitement; it’s a rush other films don’t usually come close to.

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Jen: Writing Star Wars is a obviously a lot of fun. Right authors!? *authors all nod vehemently, and audience laughs* Do you ever run into a situation where you have a story idea and it’s not for the Star Wars galaxy?

Charles: It’s so hard because everyone has written so much good stuff, and I have to live up for it (in Star Wars).

James: Yeah you have to live up to “A New Hope”, the excitement and drama of it. Even “The Force Awakens” had to do that.

EK: When I’m writing I’m hoping that people will listen to John Williams’ music while reading it! That would be super helpful to me.

Jen: What’s your favorite Star Wars scene and character to write?

James: Two scenes stick out. In “Dark Lord”, when Anakin is still transitioning to Darth Vader, when he wakes up in the suit that’s keeping him alive, and in the New Jedi Order when the Jedi take back Coruscant.

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Kieron: At the end of “Darth Vader”, just knowing I got to write for him. He’s a lot of fun!

Charles: I got to write Yoda for two pages for the Obi-Wan and Anakin series, and I must have written it 50 times, because it’s very difficult. Because he sometimes speaks that way, but not always, so you have to write it correctly.

Chuck: You have these beloved characters, iconic, concrete in your head, and when it comes time to write those characters the hardest thing to do is just getting out of their way. and not overthink it. You know these cadences and rhythms intuitively, so you just have to let it flow.

James: Do you read back to yourself to hear how it sounds to you?

Chuck: Yes and it’s embarrassing to myself.

EK: All of my scenes are super spoilery…. But I got a comment from Pablo that “this was good”.

Tim: I wrote Mara on a narrow pathway, and she has to be blocking blaster bolts as she’s running, but turning off her lightsaber to not cut through the path supports as she is. That was a really cool visual to write.

Jen: Claudia Gray once told me she was really afraid of writing C-3PO, and was afraid of not doing it justice. She discovered the secret was using exclamation points! Anyone have similar experiences?

Kieron: Boba Fett! In a comic medium, when he’s always so still and visual and silent, it’s harder to write. It’s a visual medium, but also very static, which makes it harder.

EK: I was super nervous to write Ahsoka. I think it was that she comes with a voice. It was my first Star Wars book, and the other characters I’d written hadn’t. It was a challenge for me to tackle that.

Charles: Yoda for sure, but a different challenge was Palpatine. He’s an evil genius. It’s not as hard as it sounds, but to write it to make him seem as brilliant and evil was harder, the puppet master part of him. I loved it; I’d write him forever.

James: I was writing about Palpatine and Sidious before people knew about the two being the same, and had to not make the readers know. That was tough!

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Chuck: Han is tricky. He’s a scounral, and you think he doesn’t care or doesn’t know, but then he also has a heart of gold and is really smart, and he’s this constantly complicated character. He’s always funny, but isn’t always meaning to be, so that balance….

Tim: It’s more about can I get a good story where the characters all feel like they should? I just have general anxiety about that instead of a specific character anxiety.

Jen: Is there a character you would like to write that you haven’t yet?

James: Trying to think of a character I haven’t written… Maybe Watto?? *audience laughs*

EK: I would like to write Sabine Wren.

Chuck: Everyone know KOTOR? There’s this this wonderful droid… *audiences cheers wildly* “Statement: I am in a room full of meatbags” *audiences dies laughin*

Tim: I have written some Palpatine, but I’d like to go back and write some more.

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Kieron: Charles… *looks over*

Charles: I know!! I’m just thinking. Probably Luke.

Jen: Luke has always seemed to me to be challenging, like you have to have a delicate balance.

James: He is a challenge because he’s the ultimate good-guy, and you can’t write him bad….

Jen: I’m curious to know what it’s like interacting with the fans and readers? It’s a part of the experience of being a Star Wars author whether you like it or not….

Tim: It’s great to meet the people who’re keeping us in business.

James: It’s interesting for the writer to know their audience so well. When I write I’m thinking about you guys and what you’d like to read.

Charles: One of the things I enjoy… whoever runs Wookiepedia… is incredibly on top of running it! A book can come out with a new character I’ve written, and the day it’s released the character will be on Wookiepedia! I named a character in my book after a friend, and was able to send him a link to the character on Wookiepedia on the day of release, and now he’s giving me a free dinner! Thank you! *audience laughs*

Jen: I’m curies for EK to answer this because her book hasn’t technically come out yet.

EK: The online stuff has been interesting. I’ve been paying attention to people mostly on Tumblr who seem to be eighteen or younger, and they’re soooo enthusiastic. I did a signing in Texas and kids brought actions figures and art they drew, and cried when I signed. It was so awesome.

Chuck: Yeah ,the kids are fantastic.

Jen: How do people react when they know you’re a Star Wars author?

Chuck: They generally want to know secrets! If they ask if you’re God, say yes.

EK: Just before “The Force Awakens” I was telling my family about going to seeing it, and my Mom was like “oh, are you a Star Wars fan”? And I couldn’t talk about the book at all yet, so I was just like… yes? And my dad started describing a character that was Patrick Stewart, and I was like “Dad, that’s Star Trek”.

Jen: What are some current projects you’re working on?

James: *holds up Catalyst* This is essential reading if you plan to see “Rogue One”! You find out a lot more about the characters.

EK: So “Star Wars: Ahsoka” comes out on Tuesday. It’s the story of Ahsoka Tano. It starts very shortly before Order 66, and follows her adventures afterwards.

Kieron: “Darth Vader 25 “drops next week! I’m very proud of that. I’ve got a project in December that I can’t talk about at all… but the character’s got the most awesome hat ever.

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Charles: I just got green-lit less than an hour ago upstairs. There’s a character Chuck is writing, Snap, who has a buddy, that I’ll get to write! I can’t really tell you anything, but Chuck has been so helpful.

Chuck: There may be Phasma in a trash compacter. *laughs* The third book in Aftermath trilogy called “The Empire Ends”.

Tim: I’ve got a book coming out next weekend that deals with a brand new character from “Star Wars Rebels”! *crowd cheers* This is a prequel that will show how he rose in the Imperial ranks to get to where he is in Rebels.

James: What was it like to write about your character from a new perspective?

Tim: Exciting, terrifying and everything in between. They brought me to Lucasfilm last fall and said “we wanna just talk about Star Wars’. I kept prodding for info, but didn’t get it. Then they said Dave Filoni would be blocking out some time with me. Then they were like, ‘and there may be a film crew at the meeting’, and I was like
what was going on! It was never what I expected, but I’d hoped for years to have one of my characters brought to life on screen. It’s only just now starting to feel real. When I saw Thrawn on the TV set at my own house I was like “ok, yeah it’s real”. I do want to say that I’ve seen some of the scripts, and for those who worry about the character, don’t. I’m very excited to see how it all plays out. I’m nervous until about May next year….

Question for Jen: Do writers come to you, or do you go to writers to get books done? Charles, how do you keep everyone organized with the notebooks?

Charles: I’m lucky that it kind of snaps in for me, but I’m lucky the notebooks help me.

Jen: It’s both, to answer your question. We talk about what kind of stories we want to tell at Lucasfilm and go to different authors for it. But on the flip side, authors might have different ideas. And even if an idea originates from Lucasfilm, the writers have a lot of creative freedom with it.

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Chuck: They basically say we have this space for you. Don’t go outside of this space, but do what you want in it. It’s been great.

Charles: We love story group, especially if they’re in the room today. *audience laughs*

Question from the audience: For all of you, but Tim especially: Now we have backstories that aren’t cannon… but you’re writing the same characters that we all remember what happened. With that in mind, do you try to stay close to the original story, or do you try to make it very different?

Tim: I was told I don’t have to deal with computer games, etc. The way I approach it is that I haven’t written Thrawn in this era. So I’ve taken him, retrograded him fifteen years, and am writing him like that. It’s not a new character, but a new time period.

Chuck: Sometimes it’s an opportunity to make something new, to get the best of both worlds (old and new).

Charles: Yeah, like LEGO, you can use old pieces to build new and wonderful things. It’s freeing to write something that will move forward.

Michael: There are some who aren’t here today that I’d like to mention. There will be a Jyn YA novel coming up, and a Rogue One book by Greg Rucka. Next year is the 40th anniversary of “A New Hope”. We’ll have a cool publishing program to celebrate that. You’ll see books from multiple publishers coming out, and you may see news coming out next week from Marvel about that.

After the moderators wrapped up the panel, they did a few giveaways! Thanks for reading, and come back for more convention coverage and other written pieces!

Bethany Blanton

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