Writing a Bestselling Series, Chapter 7: The Lifesaver

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Writing a Bestselling Series, Chapter 7: The Lifesaver

I knew that the second book in my Serpent Catch series was doomed.  There were three indicators. The first was that my publisher had been bought out by a conglomerate that wanted to ditch all of the science fiction and fantasy authors—literally dozens of them.  The second came when my editor asked that I change the novel on the second book.  I tried dozens of titles, and she didn’t like them.  I always felt that a good title combines two strong images and make the reader wonder what the story is about, but the my editor suggested a title that was rather bland.  The title she wanted, “Path of the Hero,” didn’t really provide any strong images for me.  Last of all, when the cover came in, it depicted a night scene.  Oh, the artwork was fine, excellent even, but a dark cover would fade into the background.

In one review in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, readers were urged to go search on the bottom shelf at the book store where my books were won’t to be (since they were written under the last name of Wolverton) and hunt for that book with the dark cover.

The book really didn’t ever have much of a chance.

About a month before I finished it, though, my editor called up one day and asked, “What do you think about the Star Wars movies?”  I began to give her my literary analysis of the films, and she said, “No, no, no.  What I mean is, would you be interested in writing a Star Wars novel?”

Heck yeah.  I’d seen the first film some 35 times, and the second 14.  I’d liked them so much, that at that the age of 19, I even began preparing myself to apply for a job at Lucas’s special effects studio, Industrial Light and Magic.  I studied macro-photography, began working with computers, writing, studying special effects and lighting.  It was a short-lived interest, but very intense.

But I had a novel to finish and asked to be given time to think about it.

A couple of days after I turned in Path of the Hero, my editor called again.  She explained that my publisher wasn’t buying any science fiction at the time, but that she hoped to be able to keep me on.  I quite liked her and was eager to stay, too, so she asked if I would write a Star Wars novel.  Timothy Zahn was just getting ready to release his second, and she said, “The numbers look very promising, so if you do one, it might give you enough money to live on for a year or so, and buy me some time.”

Now, I went and looked at Timothy Zahn’s novels and some other Star Wars books.  The writers were all good, but on a critical level, I had begun to think of books a bit differently.

You see, there is no such thing as a “genre.”  The world genre is a marketing term that describes the primary emotional appeal of a novel.  We have thrillers, romances, mysteries, and so on.  These are all emotional appeals.  One science fiction editor back in the 1950s suggested that science fiction and fantasy be sold in a “wonder” section, and he was absolutely right. That’s the primary appeal of these kinds of novels.

In fact, if you look a little closer, you can see that every book is like a little emotional symphony, with a primary emotional draw, a secondary, a tertiary, and so on.

So what is Star Wars?  Well, there was the wonder, of course, but it also scores very high on adventure, comedy, then some drama, romance, and mystery.

In looking at what other authors were doing, I felt that they were getting a lot of the draws right, but they were missing the comedy beats.

So I decided to have some fun.  I got some friends from my writing group together and pitched them some ideas, then just sat back and watched to see which ideas made their eyes sparkle.  Certain ideas would cause their eyes to twinkle, then they would get excited about the idea and try to figure out how to add it to my narrative.  If an idea didn’t excite them, I threw it out.

So what were the ideas?  Well, Leia’s home world has been destroyed, but there are a lot of refugees from her world.  What if she wanted a new one, and a handsome “prince” came and made a politically motivated proposal.  (She is a heroine in the New Republic, after all.)  And Han Solo had won the Millennium Falcon in a card game.  So what if he won a planet in a card game?  And what if the planet had once been a prison planet where force-using “witches” were imprisoned, but of course Han doesn’t know that.  Oh, and what if the witches use rancor’s as beasts of burden . . . and, and, you get the idea.

We had that one little session on a Wednesday night, I found out which concepts sparked excitement, and I wrote the proposal for The Courtship of Princess Leia the next day, then polished it quickly and sent it off.

The novel was a bit zany, I admit.  I really wanted to make a point: put the comedy back into Star Wars.

The proposal had to get approval from my editor, then from Lucasfilm licensing, and finally from George Lucas himself.  So my editor sent it back for a polish, then we sent it to Lucasfilm, who gave George a checklist of questions about it.  George answered the questions in pen, then wrote me a nice little note telling me how much he liked it and how excited he was to see how I did with it.

Really, getting that note excited me, made me feel as if I wasn’t going too far afield with the book.

Within a couple of weeks, I was writing that novel, and for once I had some good news.  My chronic fatigue was getting better.  I could stay up for ten or twelve hours straight, and was able to write pretty late into the night, especially on Fridays and Saturdays.

I wrote the entire novel while wearing headphones, listening to the original Star Wars soundtrack, though I sometimes put on other music just to avoid going insane.

In fact, I was able to write so much that one night I stayed up until 2:00 A.M. writing and finally felt so exhausted, I considered going to bed.  Then I thought, “You know, there are fans who would kill to get this job,” so I stayed up a couple hours more.

I finished the job very quickly, and sent it in to my editors in 1993.  They asked for only a few tiny revisions.  For one thing, I had Chewbacca rip off a “witch’s” arm and beat her to death with it.  It’s supposed to be a Wookie martial art form, but my editor thought it was gross.  In another scene, I had Leia argue with Han, and as he was walking away, she admired his butt.  I did this as a tribute to one member of my writing group, a woman who really liked Harrison Ford’s hind end.  But my editor didn’t care for that, or for the witches of Dathomir watching holographic porn.  So I had to tone that down, too.

Generally speaking, though, it was an extremely pleasant experience working on Star Wars—pure fun.

When I got my rewrite notes from my editor, I set them aside for a couple of days while I was at work.  I came home from work at midnight on a Thursday and was surprised to find a burglar.  He raced out of the house, and I checked to make sure that my wife, kids, and televisions were all right, then went to bed.

However, on Saturday when I went to begin work on my rewrites, I discovered that the manuscript had been stolen.  That wasn’t a big problem, since the publisher’s keep a duplicate in case it gets lost in the mail, so I called my editor and told her of the burglary.

She got excited and warned me not to tell anyone.  Bantam’s marketing department wanted to release the news the day before the book came out.  So I promised to keep quiet, and they sent me the new edits.

I did them quickly and sent them back quickly.

Unfortunately, that Thursday night, the burglar struck again.  My daughter Nichole came and woke me at 2:00 A.M. to tell me that a man with “big boots” was walking around outside the house.  I went downstairs and spooked him again.  This time he didn’t get much, but it surprised me that after stealing my Star Wars manuscript, all that he was interested in taking was the copy of my contract with Bantam along with the note from George Lucas—anything with a signature.

So the book got turned in, and we waited.  Getting the job was fun, but the biggest boon was that a bestselling novel like this had the potential to really boost my sales numbers, which would add a new lease to life on my career.

When the book came out, it turned into a nice hit.  Several people called to tell me that they saw displays at local grocery stores, but each time that I ran to the store to see one, it had already sold out.  The bestselling novel at the time seemed to be selling about 50,000 copies per week, but Courtship sold at least twice that many in its first week, I suspect.  (Bestseller lists at the time didn’t actually report on how many books were sold.  The New York Times list in particular didn’t reflect actual public tastes, but was a conglomeration of guesses and actual reporting that came in two weeks too late to actually do any good.

At that point, I merely kept on working at my day job at WICAT—the world-institute of computer-assisted teaching—where I served as the manager for the editing department.  The day job was rather gruelling, with everyone on my staff being overworked, but it was also a fun company to work for simply because we were paving the way on developing teaching software.  We felt that we were saving the world.

In any case, I began working on a proposal for my next novel in my spare time as I waited for my first royalty check.  The royalty rates weren’t high, mind you.  Lucasfilm got to keep the majority of the money.

With my next novel, I decided to write a big space opera, one that featured trees prominently, since I was working toward writing a big fantasy. My editor at Bantam liked it, but then my agent called and said that Tor was interested in seeing a proposal.  I sent it, and she said that Tor wanted to see more proposals.  So I sent them seven novel proposals over the next day, and Tor pretty much wanted them all.

The folks at Bantam came in with an offer, but it was a bit too low for me to accept, and so with a heavy heart I moved to Tor.  I quit my day job and began writing full-time, and was asked to become the lead judge for the Writers of the Future contest, replacing Algis Budrys.

So I was working for Writers of the Future, then writing the rest of the time, and taking a few technical writing and editing jobs on the side.  With that, I began my Golden Queen series.

My first royalty check for Courtship came in at nearly $100,000, which was more than twice as much as my day job would pay me in a year. So for the first time in years I was feeling pretty healthy, and I had clawed my way up from being a part-time writer to a full-time novelist.

So what are the takeaways from this?

1.    Never let an editor give your novel a bad title.  Take charge.  If you don’t like their suggestion, think about it until you find a title that works for you.  It’s said that “a bad title won’t destroy a novel’s sales,” and that might be partly true, but there are other negative factors that can come into play—bad covers, poor publicity, and so on.  A weak title is like a magnet that will attract poor covers and weak marketing campaigns.

2.    An editor who likes you can be a real lifesaver.  Try to be friends with your editor.

3.    Becoming a full-time writer is just plain hard work.  It requires dedication and planning and lots of hard work, along with a little talent. 

***

There is a nice new blog called Smart Writers Only that posts some of the best resources for writers every Monday. You might want to check it out.

I'll be at GenCon in August! Here is my schedule:

Gencon Schedule
Thursday
10-11 Free Session--Million Dollar Audiences. Come find out what the bestselling movies and book
of all time all have in common. This session is free!
11-12 Transporting Your Reader. Come learn writing techniques on how to bring your setting to life.
This workshop lasts for 5 hours and costs $50.
12-1 Lunch
1-5 Building Better Worlds. Learn How to Build Exciting Worlds for Your Reader, whether you write
science fiction, fantasy, or historical fiction. We’ll cover how to build your physical world, develop
cultures, technology, magic systems, and more. You will do short writing assignments in this
session.

Friday
9-10: Free Session—Creating Gripping Characters. It’s not enough to just create “believable”
characters. In this session, I’ll show you some advanced techniques for building intriguing characters,
sympathetic characters, and discuss character dynamics.
10-5. Casting Your Novel. This workshop lasts for 6 hours and costs $60. In this workshop, you’ll
learn advanced techniques for casting your novel—creating your protagonist, antagonist,
contagonist, guide, true love, temptress, sidekick, and hecklers. You’ll also learn the casting
director’s method of casting in order to develop unique characters, learn exercises to create
character voices, and we’ll get into how to deepen your characters in order to bring them to life. You
will do short exercises in this session, and we will take a break for lunch.

Saturday
9-10: Free Session—The Story Engine. Your story can’t come alive until you put your characters
into conflict. Conflict is the engine that drives your story forward. In this class, we’ll talk about the
types of conflicts that you need—from internal conflicts to external, from social conflicts to
interpersonal, and so on.
10-5 Developing Exciting Conflicts. This workshop lasts for 6 hours and costs $60.In this workshop,
we will go through a number of techniques for creating powerful conflicts, such as “building character
circuitry,” “devising gads,” developing family-centered and identity conflicts, and so on. You will
learn ways to escalate your novel by deepening and broadening conflicts. We’ll do exercises on
how to write argument scenes, developing identity conflicts and writing action.

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