Question by Question - An Interview with Troy Denning

In the process of writing a novel, something usually comes along that totally surprises the writer, something completely unexpected. Did that happen to you while writing Star by Star?

The biggest surprise came early, when Shelly sent me The New Jedi Order bible and said "you're writing Hardcover #3". At this point, Vector Prime wasn't even out, so I didn't know much more than that we were going to do this thing called The New Jedi Order. But Hardcover #3--as we called it for the next two years--was the middle book of the series, so it was almost by definition a pivotal point. Even at that time, there were a lot of radical things happening in the story, and I realized right away that HC#3 was going to be both one of the coolest books in the series and the hardest to do well. I remember thinking, "So that's why they make you sign the contract before telling you what you're going to do."

There was just a ton of stuff that needed to be accomplished. My first outline was 45 chapters long, which was more than double the number of chapters I usually put in a story. Then I was invited to attend a story meeting with Shelly Shapiro, Sue Rostoni, Lucy Autrey Wilson, Jim Luceno, and Matt Stover in which we hashed out many of the plot points for the rest of the series. It was the most enjoyable and productive meeting I've ever been involved in--ideas were flying like hawkbats--and we kept adding more plot points to Hardcover #3. By the time it was over I had to add another 20 chapters to the outline. I told Shelly we had to talk about the length of the book, and her reaction was "Take as many pages as you need." I was in heaven.

The final draft ended up being 55 chapters, but that's only because I wanted to keep some of the action packaged together in discrete units. All 65 chapters are still there. We only cut one three-page scene from the original manuscript, and it was replaced by a two-page scene that worked much better.

Another big surprise came when I received the Balance Point page proofs. Kathy Tyers had done exactly what her outline said she would, but there are always nuances of a story that just don't become clear until it's written. In this case, Kathy's take on many of the characters was just three or four degrees off of what I had been thinking, and I knew right away I'd have to make some adjustments. Fortunately, I really liked what she had done, which made it so much easier to go back and revise the 400 pages of manuscript I'd already written at the time! Actually, this isn't so unusual for me. I'll often write the first half of a story, then realize I want to take a different angle and go back and rewrite it before I finish.

Does that rewrite of the first half add a lot of work to the process or does it make the second half go faster once you're zoned in on what you want? It would seem like it adds a lot of work, if the revisions are large.

Well, it always takes longer than I think it will--it was about a month for Star by Star--and my friends think I'm crazy. (That may have nothing to do with my work.) But I've learned not to fight it. When I start to get that nagging feeling that I'm not quite on course, the writing slows way down. So, in the end, it's faster to clarify the vision and then continue.

How deep into someone else's universe do you have to go before you can fit "your" story into it?

I have a very organic view of story. The story must grow from the setting, or the characters' reactions will seem out of place and forced. This isn't to downplay the importance of universal archetypes, but if those archetypes don't reflect the environment from which they spring, they'll never ring true. So, for me, it's an absolute necessity to immerse myself in the setting, to incorporate it into my life until it seems natural to look at things from that perspective. I know I'm ready when the slang starts to come without much effort, when I can see something prosaic and know how a character would view and refer to it.

Translation: I read a lot, and--in the case of Star Wars--watch movies and listen to soundtracks until my wife threatens to freeze me in carbonite.

When do you usually reach that point? And when did you reach that point in working on Star by Star?

I usually reach it early in the book, though that does not mean quickly. I'll often work and rework the opening for, well, way too long--especially considering that I often cut the material anyway. This used to bother me, but I've come to see it as how I get into a story, as a way of discovering what the book is really about (it's never what you think when you outline it).

In Star by Star, I knew I was there when Jaina started to use slang like "shed chron" and "blow ions" in the first part of chapter one. We cut a lot of this because the young knights hadn't been using much slang in earlier books, but when those phrases started creeping into the dialogue, I knew that I was really looking at things from their viewpoint.

In writing a novel where the universe has been already invented and where several other writers have already written novels, it seems necessary to find a new perspective, or find something missing from previous novels, to be different in some way. Was that true for you? And where did you find it?

I'm never really conscious of trying to add a new perspective, or of trying to find something different or missing. Writing in a shared-world is a selfless endeavor; you have to consider the needs of the big story first, your own ambitions second. If you go into this with an agenda, or try to set yourself apart or prove you've found something that everyone else missed, it'll show. Your story will have a forced feel, like a jigsaw piece pushed into the wrong puzzle.

James Luceno has previously said that one the models for the Yuuzhan Vong were the Aztecs. Where do you see the inspirations for the Yuuzhan Vong?

This is the first time I've actually heard that stated, but it certainly makes sense. My initial reaction was Mayan, but I avoided drawing any conscious inspiration from their culture for fear of painting it in too Earth-like a light. Fortunately, Salvatore, Luceno, and all of the other writers had done a great job setting them up, and Greg Keyes and I were doing a lot of talking and emailing about their culture, so there was a fertile field to draw from.

You seem to have gotten into the alien mind very deeply. How does a writer manage such a difficult feat?

Getting into an alien mind is, at heart, the same as getting into the mind of any character. You just ask yourself a lot of questions about what they want and why, what they're willing to do to get it and what they're not. For aliens, the initial questions are more basic, like what they eat and breathe, how they reproduce, how their biology affects their society and its values. With a group of zealots like the Yuuzhan Vong, you also have to ask a lot spiritual questions, trying to figure out what emotional needs are being addressed by the sublimation of so many instinctual drives.

When the story is written so that the reader can understand the alien point of view, a whole new layer and depth of characterization is added. It's also a very difficult balance to manage--did you find this difficult? Did it come naturally with the story and structure that was given to you as a part of the series?

I never write villains. I always try to write two sides in pursuit of conflicting goals. When I write the "bad guys," I try to be as sympathetic to their viewpoint as to that of the "hero," which forces me to be sure of their motivations and emotions. This also helps avoid the "stupid villain" syndrome, because when you take the time to look at things from the bad guy's viewpoint, you realize s/he would never do something just to make the hero's job easier.

In Star by Star, for example, I'm very fond of Tsavong Lah. He has many of the attributes of a classical hero--courage, cunning, dedication. What makes him a villain is that he has no qualms about using ruthless means to pursue his goal. That, and the fact that his goal is to annihilate the Jedi!

Star by Star has a very skillful balance between the emotional, the philosophical, the political and the necessary character action. Was this part of your original structure or did it reveal itself as you worked through the novel?

This came pretty naturally during the writing, I guess. I certainly wasn't conscious of trying to strike a balance here, but just wanted to give each character the room s/he needed to be him/herself. I tend to have a formalistic view of writing, which probably forces me to strike this type of balance. For example, before writing a scene, I always ask myself a series of questions about what the characters want and how they feel about events in the scene. So, as long as I ask the right questions, the balance should be there.

Oh--but I do have one rule. Don't go on for more than a paragraph about matters emotional or philosophical. If it takes longer to illustrate a reaction or make a point, I grow very suspicious and take a long hard look to see what's wrong.

That explains why the pacing in your novels--Star by Star in particular--is so effective. You have to figure out how to get deep into your characters, understand their basic motivations, then get those feelings into a succinct form--that's quite a job. Any advice on how to accomplish so formidable a task?

I think that comes from my obsession with process. I'm not one of those writers who can sit down and just let words spill out. I spend a lot of time pondering and planning. When I outline, I spend far more time organizing the basic building blocks than I do actually writing down the details--just making notes about what needs to be accomplished in each part of the story. And the same is true when I develop characters; I start with what I call a "character cross"--a simple statement of what a character wants and how far he's willing to go to get it, and of what his strong and weak points are. After that, I ask myself what each character learns in the story, and how they feel about it. Then, as I'm outlining the story chapter by chapter, I make sure that I know how the primary characters' actions follow from the emotions they experienced in the previous chapter. I can't remember who said it first, but action is character--characters are defined not by what they think, but by what they do--so the single most important thing is to make certain that their actions follow from their emotions.

What I don't do is sit down and write entire life histories. I know writers who can tell you the name of their primary characters' third grade teachers. By the time I finished something like that, I'd be so bored I couldn't write the character anymore. I need to know what drives a character first; everything else follows from that.

Fantasy worlds melded to a Science Fiction universe--how did your previous novels help you write this one?

Nineteen books gave me a lot of practice? Seriously, the reason people read fantasy--at least the reason I do--is because its mythic structure touches something very profound and spiritual in our subconscious minds. The genius of Star Wars is that it brings that same mythic structure into the realm of science fiction, both rooting us in our archetypal past and propelling us into a hopeful future. So, on a writing level, the transition wasn't hard to make at all.

Of course, I've always been a big Star Wars fan. I wrote four choose-your-own path adventure books for West End Games (only two were published--Scoundrel's Luck and Jedi's Honor), and was the lead author on the original Galaxy Guide 4: Alien Races. (Andria Hayday and Stephen D. Sullivan both contributed a number of aliens). I was also reading the Bantam books as the mood struck me, so it wasn't all that difficult to bring myself up to speed.

Writing a novel for The New Jedi Order must have been exciting and stimulating--a dream come true. What was the experience like?

I'm a friend and big fan of R.A. Salvatore's, so hearing that he was doing the first NJO book really excited me about the series. Vector Prime was a great opening. He introduced us to a truly frightening enemy and set the menacing tone that has been the hallmark of The New Jedi Order. I can't wait to see what he does with the Episode II novelization.

The New Jedi Order is a remarkable experiment in publishing. Unless you've been a part of something like this, it's difficult to appreciate all the hard work and long hours that go into coordinating a story arc involving so many different books and authors. The editors, both at Del Rey and at Lucasfilm, are doing an incredible job, and they are a big reason I had so much fun writing Star by Star.

All of The New Jedi Order authors have worked very closely together to strengthen each other's stories. I spent a lot of time brainstorming especially with Jim Luceno and Greg Keyes, about subjects as varied as how villips work and whether worldships use centrifugal force or dovin basals to create artificial gravity, and many more hours with Elaine Cunningham, Aaron Allston, and Matt Stover coordinating plot details for the books that follow Star by Star. I can't wait to see where they take the story from here! Okay, I know--but I still can't wait.