Michael A. Stackpole

Published September 29, 2011

In June, Random House and Lucasfilm released the entire backlist of Star Wars titles that were previously unavailable as ebooks. Many herald this as a great way to bring more Star Wars fans into the literature fold, and we know you’ve personally championed e-publishing as a means for authors to get their works to the masses. How do you think this release will affect you?

It will be good for me, and for all the other Star Wars authors. It’s great that fans can now find these books in a convenient format. I love ebooks, and the more readers that meet me on an ereader, more readers will purchase other books there, too. That’s all good. :)

In Dark Tide: Ruin, you first introduced the character of Jagged Fel in a couple of very memorable scenes. As the author who created him, though, what is it like for you to watch one of your “babies” grow into such a substantial role in the EU, the man who will be Emperor? When you created Jag, did you ever imagine he’d become so important In Universe and Out of Universe or so popular with many fangirls?

I had a sense that Jag could be a central character, but certainly no expectation that he would be. Having worked as long as I had in the GFFA, I had a feel for what fans enjoy, and a feel for the sort of character that would fit in well with the story. In that sense, Jag was everything I wanted him to be, and watching him grow has been great fun. That being said, I’m a bit behind the curve on Star Wars books. Del Rey used to send me all the books, but dropped me from the list about a year after my last novel came out. Heck, I didn’t learn of Mara Jade’s death until I was asked about it in an interview for a Russian website. That Jag and some of my other creations are still alive and kicking makes me very happy.

Currently first person point of view storytelling seems to be making a big comeback. Back when I, Jedi was originally released it was unique within the Star Wars EU in that fans were used to seeing third person limited point of view. What were some of the challenges you were faced in writing that book? Do you think the POV choice made Corran more relatable to fans?

From the very first I knew that we needed a novel that chronicled a character learning how to become a Jedi Knight. I felt that telling that story in first person was critical, since it would allow readers inside to see what it was like to interact with the Force. I really didn’t feel there were that many challenges in writing the book—it wrote itself in 31 days out of a 41 day period. I think I was on the phone with Tim Zahn coordinating things between I, Jedi and Spectre of the Past; and that kept me jazzed. I really enjoyed being in Corran’s skin. I remember very well writing the lightsaber construction scene, as well as the “lift the rock” scene early on. Even having Corran get smacked around by Exar Kun was fun. It is a book of which I am very proud; and that so many folks like it keeps me smiling.

[This question comes from oldjedinurse, a long-time Cantina member:] Mike, the characters in your books are very well-defined; you add layers of tiny detail that make them rich and full. As a reader, I always have the sense that I know them on a more personal level than those written by other authors. I also think your action scenes are exceptional. My questions: Do you feel an affinity for writing characters and action sequences over other aspects of storytelling? Do you follow a specific process when conceptualizing a new book, or do you write in a more “organic” fashion? We miss you in the SW universe!

Thanks. In general, I start with a plan, an outline, as well as solid sketches for the characters. However, as the book is being written, I let the book’s momentum and the development of the characters determine where things will go. In terms of character development, it’s the little details that make the characters fun and memorable, so I look for those and work them into the story in a natural manner, not slapping them on the character like a Surgeon General’s warning or Closed Captioning. :) I want the readers to care about the characters as much as I do, and I want what happens to the characters to have an emotional impact for the readers. That’s what makes the story fun to read.

Action sequences are just a lot of fun. The fighter sequences were based on a lot of research, and trying to find different challenges to toss at the characters. Too many authors think of challenges as “if he kills one, next time toss two at him…” and so on. Numbers don’t make emotional connections, and doing that is the core to good writing. That said, a good, exciting dogfight can’t be beat, and I’m working on a new project that should allow me to do some of that.

[Question from Jaedus:] In the 8th X-Wing book, Isard’s Revenge, we see a lot of interaction between the two main antagonists, Delak Krennel and Ysanne Isard’s clone. I really liked the character of Krennel and I was wondering if there was anything going on between those two. Thanks for your time.

I don’t recall having anything going on between them. i do think that powerful characters feel an attraction to each other—it’s a kindred soul thing. When you’re at the top, it’s lonely because you figure no one else knows what it’s like. When you meet someone who does, suddenly you have an audience that can appreciate what it is you do. The dance begins because each is trying to dominate the other. I’m sure, had things continued and had they been successful, they might have indeed gotten together—a fact that scares me.

[Questions From Solo_and_Fel:] Will [you] ever come back to SW?

If Del Rey were to decide that having me come back and write another X-wing book, or do more with the Fels or Corran Horn, I’d be happy to come back. We’d have to make sure that my schedule and theirs worked out, and that things made economic sense, but once those details were ironed out, It would be a blast to get caught up and to do a story. Until Del Rey issues that invite, however, I’ll sit on the sidelines. I still love Star Wars and would enjoy playing there, but the decision to return is completely out of my hands.

I want to know if there is a plan when a writer creates a new character (especially in a universe as large as SW) – do they know where and with whom they want this character to go? [Tricia’s note: if you take into account the questioner’s screenname, there might be an implied question there too. So I’ll go ahead and ask it.] Did you specifically create Jag thinking he might be the type of character to spark Jaina Solo’s interest?

It depends upon where a story fits into the publishing plan and overall story-arc. For example, I knew I wanted Iella and Wedge to get together, but the moment I started setting that up, I heard that Kevin J. Anderson had provided Wedge with “the love of his life.” Blech. So I worked with Tim Zahn and Lucasfilm, and we made it happen. Aaron Allston, in Starfighters, put the last nail in the coffin, and we made things come true. That said, what an author wants to happen is secondary to what the property needs. Originally Jag was seen as a love match for Jaina, so… Still, had things not worked out because the story needed to go in another direction, you deal with it. I mean, I was dead set against Anakin’s death. I thought it was wasteful. I did everything I could to characterize him solidly so they wouldn’t kill him, but the decision to do so was made above my pay-grade.

[One last question from Solo_and_Fel:] In a multi-author universe, is it a disappointment when the road heads in another direction or do [you] embrace the vision of others and the mosaic that it creates?

It can be mildly disappointing, sure, as the Anakin example makes clear. But I’m hired help. Someone tells me where they want the pipes to run for their new lawn irrigation system, I dig the trench. Doesn’t matter that they want them in places I don’t think they should go. One either chooses to do the job, or passes on it. Disappointment and regret, then, might exist, but are kind of beside the point.

You’ve written in a variety of story types: space opera, science fiction, and fantasy, among others. What are the challenges of writing these different kinds of stories? And what’s fun about frequently changing the kind of story you’re writing?

The fun of change is never getting bored. When I look at a project, I look toward the end and see how long I think I can sustain it. And I work toward that end. During the writing new things will come up to change direction or to extend the ending point. That’s great. In terms of challenges, the big one is to get characters right. As long as the characters are real, and as long as they are connected to the world in which they live, you’re set. Everything else is window-dressing. World design is fairly easy for me because I come out of the game design industry, so I was doing world design professionally for years before I ever had novels published.

Heroes draw readers in, but a good villain can make or break a story. How do you approach villains and their motivations?

Villains come in two colors: Real and Abstract. A real villain is one with depth, with motivation, and one who’s core value is, “Why, yes, it IS all about me.” That justifies all of their actions; and people can relate to that because we all have a touch of selfishness, or are beset by folks who are selfish. The Abstract villain is one with great power but no depth. He’s just an abstraction of a concept, or the avatar of a concept. A serial killer, for example, is an avatar of death. As long as you don’t try to add background and relevance to an Abstract villain, or fail to provide it for a Real villain, you’re good to go.

In The Crown Colonies, you’re telling a fantasy style of story in a setting that’s loosely modeled on the pre-Revolutionary American colonies. What inspired the idea for the series? What kinds of stories and characters can your fans look forward to in reading the series?

The inspiration for the Crown Colonies is the fact that I love guns and magick; and that as a student of history, I find the American Colonial period absolutely riveting. So many forces collided then, and so much of the future was determined then, that it’s a very dynamic setting. So I tossed in magick and dragons and zombis and more. As for characters, I think many of them are compatible with what folks have seen in my Star Wars work: stalwart and heroic people trying to do their best; villains who are out for themselves, and circumstances which are large enough to crush everyone. The stories contain action, intrigue, suspense, romance, humor, adventure, discovery and puzzle-solving. I’ve also got more in the way of emotional manipulation and some thematic stuff, like asking what makes someone sapient and is it right to hold a sapient person in involuntary servitude. I’m really happy with the first book, At the Queen’s Command, and how it’s been received. The second book, Of Limited Loyalty, is due out in December.

Many of us are fans of yours primarily through your X-wing series books. Of your original (non-franchise) work, which book or series would make a good starting point for someone who wants to give your non-Star Wars work a try?

Once a Hero and Talion: Revenant are two good selections for folks who like fantasy; as is At the Queen’s Command. For folks who also enjoy urban fantasy, I have a book titled Tricknomancy. It’s only available digitally, but is great fun. And for folks who want to try something completely different, In Hero Years… I’m Dead, is a superhero-noir novel which is also a digital-original. It’s about a guy who used to be a superhero in Capital City twenty years ago. He has been released by captors, has returned to the city to find out why he was taken, and discovers that the world has completely changed in his absence.

You’ve blogged a lot about the rapid ongoing changes in the publishing industry, especially how it affects established authors and the existing publishing houses. What would you say is the biggest challenge facing a new author seeking to start selling their work in the next year?

The biggest challenge is to avoid being disappointed when you don’t get rich overnight. An author will be successful if she continues to turn out new material, makes it the best she can, and makes it available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Provide samples on her website so folks can read chapters for free and get excited, and it will happen. The coolest thing is this: no matter how much money you make on ebooks—even if it’s just $5 a month—it’s more money than you had last month. Your work continues to sell and as you put more out, you make more. It really is a great time to be a writer.

You’ve also blogged about how e-publishing likely will benefit the fast hare-speed writers over the tortoises of the writing family. Where do you think these tortoise types of writers will fit in?

Writing really isn’t about speed, it’s about finishing. Sure, fast writers will be able to turn out more work, but everyone else will also benefit because no matter how fast a writer is, he is incapable of fulfilling demand. When it takes two weeks to write a book, and a reader will devour that book in less than a day, there will be a constant demand for new material. So, any writer, fast or slow, that continues to produce, will find an audience. And once the audience has found them, they’ll snap up everything by that author because that’s what we, as readers, do. So, I think slower writers will do just fine in this economy. The market is expanding and since reading is a very economical form of entertainment, we’ll all be able to make a living for a good long time at it.

In your blog, the approach you’ve been describing that authors need to start adopting for business development, marketing, and branding aligns closely with what I’ve seen in the corporate world. Is this all self-taught, or do you have a background in business that you’ve built upon?

I came up through the gaming industry and have been involved with it for the past 32 years. I’ve seen a lot of “sure thing” plans come and go. In addition to that experience, I seek out experts, I read books, I do my best to remain current on marketing and business ideas. That said, the new writing economy does have some special challenges, so I concoct theories, run experiments, compare data with other writers, and refine my plans. The real key is to remember that writers are entertainers, so entertainment is where we can look for models. While we might not find an exact fit, there are some pretty good analogs out there that point to futures we want to avoid. Right now, Indy music is a nice fit; and the game industry, too, has been doing great stuff with electronic publishing for years. This can and will work, and we’re all lucky enough to have the flexibility to adapt.

You have created a lot of resources for aspiring authors; would you like to take a minute to discuss them?

I have The Secrets, which is my how-to-write newsletter. I’ve also done a number of books, all available at my online store (shelf.stormwolf.com) which walk writers through developing their skills to further their careers. Aaron Allston and I also teach a lot of how-to write classes at conventions like Origins and Dragoncon—I teach them at Gencon, too. I really don’t like the idea that a lot of writers aren’t terribly analytical about what they do, and that they generally don’t know how to teach others to be successful. Both Aaron and I are analytical and we can teach. Grooming a new generation of writers who will turn out the stories I want to read when I retire is my goal, which is why I make all this material available.

If you have any other projects in the works that you think your fans would like to know about, feel free to share those, too.

I have lots of projects. CONAN THE BARBARIAN is the novelization of the movie that came out this summer. I’ll be doing more work in the Crown Colonies series, and just wrote a short novel, Perfectly Invisible, set in a parallel Earth where terrorists murdered thousands at the Democratic National Convention in 1996, including the President, which put Newt Gingrich into the White House and made The Patriot Act into the 28th Amendment to the Constitution. That book is not a liberal or conservative look at America, but looking at how law enforcement in that world works to keep their fellow citizens secure.

If folks visit my website, michaelastackpole.com, they can learn about a lot of things as they come up for sale or release. The thing which I’m most happy about is that I’m writing a lot these days: I’ll probably turn out over a half-a-million words this year. It’s great to be back and excited. I think that comes through in the work. I love entertaining folks, and digital publishing makes that far more possible now than ever before.

Mike, thanks so much for your time.

You are more than welcome. Thanks for the great questions and the kind comments.