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Writing Excuses 5.25: Writing in Other People's Universes

Writing Excuses 5.25: Writing in Other People's Universes


Key Points: To write an X-brand novel, first step -- become a professional author. Being creative in someone else's universe is like fitting a story into a setting, follow the rules. Doing fanfic can be great writing practice, just don't expect that someone's going to grab it and publish it. Imitate the character's voice, but use your own authorial voice. Expect to do more research. And when you take the Millenium Falcon out for a spin, bring it back without a scratch, okay?

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Season Five, Episode 25, Writing in Other People's Universes.
[Howard] 15 minutes long because you're a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Howard] I'm Howard.
[Kevin] And I'm your guest, Kevin J. Anderson.

[Brandon] Once again, we have New York Times best-selling author Kevin J. Anderson joining us on the podcast. We thought we would take this opportunity to do a topic that many of you have been asking about, which is how you go about writing in other people's universes. Kevin, you've done this a lot. I've done this occasionally. Let's go at it. Howard and Dan, make wisecracks.
[Howard] That's always my job.
[Kevin] So the insightful stuff will be from my voice and Brandon's voice, and the stuff you can ignore is from Dan and Howard.
[Dan] The entertaining stuff.
[Brandon] If we start to get dry, someone throw in a pants joke, OK?
[Howard] Me-so wear no pants.
[Dan] Did you just make a dry pants joke?
[Brandon] Did you just make a Jar-Jar pants joke? How could you do that?
[Howard] Yes I did. I'm so sorry.
[Brandon] You're fired.
[Kevin] Which leads right in, too.

[Howard] Let me ask you a question, Kevin. First question, and this comes up a lot. Somebody wants to write a Star Wars novel or a Star Trek novel or something like that. How do they go about getting that job?
[Kevin] First they must become a professional author. That's step one. Most of them don't want to hear step one. They go, "I don't want to go through all that trouble of learning how to write and learning how to publish and learning how to become a good fic..."
[Howard] I just want you to publish my fanfic, please.
[Kevin] I just want to write a Star Wars book. Well, that really is the way to do it. They have to ask you. You don't say, "I've got this brilliant idea for the great epic romance novel involving Ewoks." You have to do your job.
[Dan] Stop stealing my ideas, Kevin.
[Kevin] That's what I told Dan. He is not allowed to publish that one. Lucasfilm ... or anybody, Star Trek, X-Files, any of these... the media tie-in properties, the ones that are based on movies or TV shows or whatever. They've got a lot of fans. There's a lot of people that have written fanfic. There are a lot of people that want to write a Star Wars book or a Star Trek book or whatever. They've got plenty to choose from. So why should they choose from different authors they've never heard of? Instead, they should pick somebody who's proved that they've got the chops. So the way to do that is if you write your own book, you get it published, and you get it edited yourself, and you can sell it to New York. That's the way that you get chosen as one of the authors.
[Brandon] Yeah. I've heard that in most cases, they come to you. I've told... on the podcast in many places before, my story of the Wheel of Time. I didn't apply for this job. In fact, it's kind of interesting, when I talked to Harriet, she mentioned that she had gotten a lot of applications. People the agency called. She actually intentionally didn't choose any of them, which was interesting to me. That's not the case always. You can, as a professional author, hunt down some of these. But she actually contacted me in part because I was a fan who had not contacted her. There are people who had contacted her... now, if the right person had contacted her, I'm sure she would have picked them, but in this case, it was all her hunting someone down, not someone coming to her.
[Kevin] Well, and I make a little bit of a distinction too, between say Star Wars, where there's a giant Lucasfilm corporation with all kinds of approval people and Harriet who has the Robert Jordan estate or with myself and Brian Herbert doing the Dune stuff. That we... I wrote Brian Herbert a letter, but that was after I had studied... studied so many of the Frank Herbert books. I grew up reading Frank Herbert and loved them all. It was clear that Frank Herbert's story was not done when he passed away. He leaves it on a cliffhanger, so you know that there was more to it. By the time that Brian and I started talking, I had published 50 some books, and I'd been nominated for a bunch of awards, and I had demonstrated that I could write successful books and somebody else's universe. So when we started talking, it became a "all right, this is something that will listen to." Brian and I personally hit it off right away. Just... I assume the same way that you and Harriet did. That it was an obvious thing. That's different from being one of 95 Star Trek authors or whatever.

[Howard] Kevin, you had done the Star Wars novels before you did Dune. What else did you have in your resume?
[Kevin] I did Star Wars, I get a bunch of X-Files novels, I did some Star Trek books, I did some comics, I did some movie novelizations for Titan AE and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. So I had a whole lot of experience working in somebody else's universe. Now, one of the other questions that people always... writers, in particular, not fans... because I'm both. I'm a big fan boy. I mean, I grew up watching Star Trek and Star Wars and to me it's just an amazing honor to be asked to work with Luke Skywalker or to work with the Dune books. But writers will say, "How can you possibly be creative and tell your own story if you're in somebody else's universe?" That's just a completely bogus question if you ask me. It's like saying I want to set a story in Omaha, Nebraska, but I feel creatively constrained because I want to have all these beachfront ocean scenes. Well, no, Omaha doesn't have it. Those are the rules you deal with. So if you set your story there, you play by the rules. If James Clavell's writing Shogun, follows Japanese historical information, he doesn't sit there moaning and whining because he wanted to have fighter jets in his historical Japanese thing.
[Brandon] I always put fighter jets in my historical Japanese... [garbled]
[Kevin] Well, they tend... maybe that's why.
[Brandon] No, I think you've got an excellent point here because I've often said to people, when people come to me and talk about my magic systems... and this will relate, I promise. When they talk about my magic systems, they say, "How do you write great magic systems?" It surprises them, often, when I say, "Great limitations." Because the way creativity often works, at least for me, is that when... the limitations can make things way more interesting. Now, that only works up to a point, and there are some times when you can get so constrained that it's not interesting, but... saying "How can you write in someone else's universe and still be creative?" is like saying "How can you write a sonnet, Shakespeare, when you're required to follow these guidelines and still have it be creative?" Well, the restrictions sometimes spark the creativity. For me, with the Wheel of Time books, the fact that I had all of this material before, made it actually in many ways the more exciting project because I had scenes here and scenes there and characters established and things to work with. Putting it all together was a big puzzle that was fascinating to me. It has been a really great intellectual exercise that has excited me in ways that working... I love working in my own books, but at the same time this is very different and exciting because of it.
[Dan] Working within restrictions like that breeds creativity for the same reason that putting your characters up against obstacles makes their triumphs better. If it's easy to defeat the villain, then nobody cares.
[Howard] It's a principle that applies across creative disciplines. When I was studying music, you want to teach somebody to be a good drummer, you don't start them out with the Neil Peart drum kit, you start them out with a five piece. You see what you can accomplish with those pieces. And then maybe you're ready to explore and branch out. That's what makes it interesting.
[Kevin] Even that's basically explaining it way too much. I mean, I guess my answer would be, if you can't figure out how to tell a story in the entire Dune universe, you're not a very creative person. If you've got the entire Star Wars universe to run around in, to make up a story with, all of these characters and all of these planets and this big epic canvas to be telling, if you think that's too constraining, you're not a very creative person.
[Howard] It's too constraining because the story you really wanted to tell is the real love story between Leia and Han Solo. Well, no, no, no, no, no. Tell a love story between a different pair of people on a different planet in this universe, and you've got all kinds of room to have fun.
[Kevin] But that's... there are different types of writers. There are the... I don't really know how to label them. There's the I-like-writing-because-I'm-inspired-and-I-just-want-to-do-something-to-amuse-myself-and-maybe-it'll-get-published kind of writer. Or I'm-a-professional-writer-and-this-is-the-book-that-I've-agreed-to-write-and-this-is-the-story-that-I'm-going-to-tell-and-I-have-to-make-up-characters-and-do-something. If you... if I'm at home, and I'm putzing around in the kitchen because I want to make up something and cook for dinner, I can do whatever I want. If I'm a chef at a restaurant, and somebody gives an order for the fillet with the hollandaise sauce and sauteed mushrooms and then the steamed broccoli and potatoes au gratin, I have to make the potatoes au gratin, the steamed broccoli, and the fillet. You don't want to say, "I feel constrained because I have to cook what's on the order ticket." You do what you need to do.

[Brandon] Let's go ahead and stop for our book of the week. This week, we're going to promote The Saga of the Seven Suns, Kevin J. Anderson's wonderful... I've actually read the Saga of the Seven Suns... wonderful space epic. Tell us about the series, and the first one.
[Kevin] Well, The Saga of the Seven Suns... seven books long, it's this big science-fiction epic. Lots of story lines, and galactic war against a bunch of different races. It's like War and Peace across the galaxy. It's seven volumes, and it's one big story. It's not just seven different adventures in it. The first book is called Hidden Empire and it's available on
[Brandon] Does some really interesting things with viewpoint. Lots of quick viewpoints, jumping from person to person to person. Very interesting books. I recommend them to you. You can go to to download a free copy of Hidden Empire... not the Orson Scott Card one, although I'm sure that's a great book... I actually haven't read that one.
[Kevin] Two totally... yeah, don't read Orson Scott Card and then read book 2 in Seven Suns. It won't make any sense.

[Brandon] Exactly. But let's get back to this. Once again, the second half of the podcast, I often like to do this. Let's try and focus it on our listeners and say, what specific advice... let's say someone that we're listening to wants to write in someone else's universe... either they write fanfic and it's just for their own amusement or they get hired to do it...
[Howard] Let's assume... yeah, let's assume they got the gig.
[Brandon] What advice can we give... specifics... on how to approach this?
[Kevin] I would even back it off a little bit, that when I was in high school, I was a big Star Trek fan. I wanted to be a writer. I didn't know any of the details, I just assumed if I wrote good stuff that Gene Roddenberry would see how brilliant it was and want to publish... even though Star Trek was off the air. But I spent years with several spiral notebooks and I just plotted one Star Trek episode after another after another. It taught me to be a writer in how to plot things within a constraint, because Star Trek episodes were the opening teaser, and then there were four 15-minute blocks, and then there was a little epilogue at the end. I just wrote one after another after another. I came up with ideas, and I told the stories. By having that variable taken away, in that it's about Kirk and Spock and McCoy and it was in the Star Trek universe, I was allowed to strengthen my plotting skills because I didn't have to do that part of the story. I'm a pretty decent plotter, that's one of my big strengths as a writer, is I can do all kinds of intricate, well-tied-together plots. That's one of the ways I learned them, by just doing again and again and again Star Trek stories, because the plots had to work because the characters were already there.
[Brandon] This is very common in Hollywood, particularly with television episodes for aspiring screenwriters to write spec scripts set in a world... in fact, there are many screenwriting competitions where the goal is, you have to pick a TV show that is on right now and write a spec script for it. When applying for a job, often times, you write a spec script for other TV shows, not for the TV show your writing for, just to show you can do it. Those never get produced, they never go anywhere.
[Kevin] They're never meant to be produced.
[Brandon] They're never meant to be. It's just showing you can achieve it.
[Kevin] So for your listeners, I guess one of the things that you could look at as an exercise, if you like the show Quantum Leap or if you like the show Battle Star Galactica, or anything like that. As long as you don't imagine somebody's going to grab it and publish it, you may well learn a lot about how to write by writing your own fanfic Battle Star Galactica novel or your own fanfic Quantum Leap novel, because it will teach... you already... it's like... I don't know, borrowing somebody else's car, that you'll learn how to drive different vehicles but you don't have to buy the car.
[Howard] It's learning the intricacies of plot and dialogue and characterization without having to worry about setting or the original backstory of the characters.
[Kevin] Well, and it will learn... it will teach you how to write in a character's voice. Like, you all know how Captain Kirk's going to talk if you're familiar enough with the character, so you have to write your story to match that. You can use that skill in developing your original fiction which you then need to write and get published before somebody will actually have you do a Star Trek book.

[Brandon] Here's a piece of advice I can throw at you. I might... Kevin might contradict me on this, I don't know, I haven't talked to him about this. But for me, writing the Wheel of Time books, I had a conundrum when I started. The conundrum was, was I going to try and imitate Robert Jordan's voice exactly or was I going to apply my own voice to the Wheel of Time? In the end, I decided the only thing to do was to apply my own voice. I can't imitate Robert Jordan. If they had wanted someone to imitate Robert Jordan, they would have hired a ghost writer, not me. They hired a science fiction... they hired a fantasy writer. So, approaching it... my advice to you would be, don't try and imitate exactly. Go ahead and feel free to leave your own stamp on it. Now, there's going to be a really tight line to walk there, because the characters have to feel like themselves. It still has to feel like a Star Trek book or a Wheel of Time book or whatever. But trying to stamp out every individual part of yourself... my Wheel of Time books are going to feel slightly different than Robert Jordan's. There's no getting around that.
[Howard] But there's a difference between... I want to make sure we don't inadvertently conflate these two terms for our listeners. There's the character's voice which you want to imitate fairly closely.
[Brandon] Yeah. You want that as exact as possible.
[Howard] Then there is the authorial voice. Jordan's voice... which...
[Dan] You need to do your own.
[Howard] You need to do your own voice.
[Dan] I think... a great example of this, acting wise, going back to Star Trek was... I can't remember the kids name that did Kirk in the new movie. He was not doing Shatner, but he was completely true to the original voice of Kirk.
[Brandon] Doing Kirk.
[Dan] It felt like Kirk, but it also felt true to the guy.
[Kevin] Every author who writes a Star Trek book, Captain Kirk's dialogue should all sound like Captain Kirk, but Diane Duane's prose is very different from Anne Crispin's prose or anybody else's prose. But the characters are the same. We did the same thing with the Frank Herbert books. I mean, we lived and breathed Frank Herbert's stuff. I read all those Dune books more times than I even know. I've read all of Frank Herbert's other stuff. Brian's read them all. But we do not try to write sentence-by-sentence what Frank Herbert did. Because it doesn't say Frank Herbert. The new Wheel of Time books say Brandon Sanderson as one of the co-authors on the cover. It's Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson on the new Dune books. We're not trying to pretend that we're Frank Herbert. We're not trying to sound like Frank Herbert. But we're trying to do the look-and-feel so that the readers who love Dune who pick up our Dune books will go, "Oh, there's a different chef in the kitchen, but this is still what I ordered."

[Brandon] Another piece of advice I would say... we're running low on time... but it would be, realize that writing in someone else's world in many ways requires much more research. I do 10 to 20 times more research for a Wheel of Time book than I do on my own.
[Kevin] And the fans will notice any little discrepancy.
[Brandon] Any little discrepancy, so be careful. You're going to have to... you're not going to get everything right, but you will have to research a lot more, and it's appropriate to do so.
[Howard] Following your twitter feed on this Wheel of Time reread, Brandon, has been terrifying for me. Because I'm watching, saying, "Oh, wait, Brandon just learn something new. Ah! Oh, no..."
[Kevin] He's supposed to know everything.
[Howard] "But he's already written two of those books. What does this mean?"

[Brandon] Yeah. It's just like that. The last thing I'd say, just an aspect of this, I don't know how much of this will be useful to you as listeners, but working on someone else's property, I feel more responsibility. We talked about responsibility to the readers. When I'm playing in someone else's universe, when I'm working on a Wheel of Time book, that belongs to the fans more than it belongs to me in many ways. In my own books, I don't take as much... I write my own book as I want to write them. This is the book I want to write. With a Wheel of Time book, I approach it differently and say, "No, this needs in some ways to be... this has to be the book that Robert Jordan wanted done," and I feel a responsibility to make sure that those fans are getting... not everything they ask for, because they don't always know exactly what they want, but when they read that book, they say, "Yes, that's what I wanted."
[Kevin] It's like... remember at the end of Return of the Jedi when Han Solo loans The Millennium Falcon to Landro Calrissian. He says, "You're going to return it? Not a scratch, right, not a scratch?" That's our job. We're borrowing the Millennium Falcon, we have to return it without a scratch.

[Brandon] Kevin, do you have a writing prompt for us? Can you come up with one? Besides Ewok love stories?
[Kevin] Let's have a group of aliens come to a writing conference to learn how to write stories that humans will want to read.
[Brandon] Wow, that's a good writing prompt. Excellent. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
Tags: characters, creativity, fan fiction, fanfic, millenium falcon, plotting, professional author, research, setting

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