Books, news, & views from Karen Traviss

  • Why have you stopped writing Star Wars?
    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

    ©Karen Traviss 2009