How Star Wars authors work with Lucasfilm and earn creative control

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Nov 3, 2017

Is there a franchise more secretive than Star Wars? Disney and Lucasfilm are notorious for keeping upcoming projects locked away in an inaccessible vacuum and maintaining an air of mystery and secrecy around every aspect of the franchise (at least the stuff that happens on screen). In an age when trailer and spoiler leaks are the norm, Star Wars is airtight.

But that secrecy isn't limited to the films. Every aspect of the Star Wars universe — films, television, books, games, comics — is held to the same standard. Book and comic announcements are major news, and nearly everything — across all media — connects to tell the story of a cohesive galaxy.

Star Wars is one of the few transmedia properties where "canon" is given nearly equal weight with solid storytelling.

Enter the Lucasfilm Story Group, which was formed in 2014 (following the Disney purchase) and is composed of roughly a dozen people responsible for maintaining order — and keeping all of the creative ducks in a row — within the Star Wars universe. No small feat, that.

Since then, one of the most persistent questions among fans is how much creative control the Story Group has over various projects. And when it comes to books (of which there are many), how much freedom do the authors really have to tell their own stories?

Turns out, they have quite a bit! SYFY WIRE reached out to a number of Star Wars authors, and if there's a common theme among their answers, it's that they have almost total creative freedom.

Leland Chee, the official "Keeper of the Holocron," is one of a few people on the Story Group who also helped control the creative strings before the Disney purchase. In other words, his experience managing "canon" predates the Story Group. Because of that, he has a unique view on how the role has changed.

"We've got more content [now] then I ever thought we'd have. Before we had a Story Group, what George did with the films and The Clone Wars was pretty much his universe," Chee said. "He didn't really have that much concern for what we were doing in the books and games. So the Expanded Universe was very much separate. What we had to do in the Expanded Universe was, if George did something in the films that contradicted something we had done in the Expanded Universe, then we'd have to change the EU to match what he did in the films."

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"[For example,] all of a sudden, lightsabers can only be blue, green, purple, or red. That means we've got to take out these yellow lightsabers. OK ... Jedi can't marry. So, this Jedi over here that got married, we'll have to figure that out. So there was a lot of that — having to retcon to compensate for what's being done by George in the films.

"So with the Story Group overseeing all of the content in film and television and elsewhere, we don't have to retroactively make those changes. We can anticipate those changes. We can seed things in one medium [and see them grow] in another. So we might be seeding things in books or TV that you might not realize is substantial until years down the road. And if people knew what the roadmap looked like, they would just be floored."

Perhaps the most public face of the Story Group (thanks to social media), Pablo Hidalgo clarifies their surprisingly hands-off role: "All of us in the Story Group are here to help creatives find the story they're trying to tell in Star Wars. Sometimes that means feedback regarding continuity. Sometimes that just means feedback based on how we think the story is shaping up."

And that sentiment was overwhelmingly echoed by the authors with whom I spoke. They almost all describe approaching their respective projects with a bit of trepidation, expecting the Story Group to micromanage their stories and mandate story/character changes in the interest of continuity. The truth, as it turns out, is something quite different.

Chuck Wendig (Aftermath trilogy) describes the process almost verbatim with Hidalgo: "I had a lot of freedom to develop and shape the story; guidance from Lucasfilm was about sharpening that story and bringing my vision in line with the storyworld at large. It was pretty much the ideal relationship, and I never felt stifled or managed."

Adam Gidwitz (So You Want to Be a Jedi?) describes the process as empowering and exciting, even though one of his ideas was nixed by the Story Group. "One thing they did shoot down was an idea I had early on in the process. [I wanted it to] be a Jedi teaching a young Padawan this story soon after [Return of the Jedi] concluded. And they had said that because J.J. Abrams had been contractually given a perfectly clean slate for Episode VII that I could not even imply the existence of Jedi after Episode VI."

Still, Gidwitz got to retell The Empire Strikes Back in the second person, an unconventional approach that shows the flexibility of the group.

And according to Tom Angleberger (Beware the Power of the Dark Side!), it was Lucasfilm's willingness to roll with Gidwitz's non-traditional take on Empire that gave him the courage to suggest a similar creative risk with his adaptation of Return of the Jedi.

"I remember being really nervous about telling the story the way I wanted to. And then we were there at Skywalker Ranch, and I'm so nervous that I'm just going to get shot down when I say I want to have the 'dear reader' style of writing," he remembered. "And then Adam goes, 'I'm going to tell mine in the second person!' And then I was like, 'Oh, I'm doing dear reader.' Because Adam broke the ice with that second-person thing, and they were so supportive of it! They were like, 'Go for it!' So I realized that, wow, they really do want us to go for it."

Angleberger confirmed that he had "almost no parameters" while writing the book. "But we knew that eventually the Story Group was going to have to look at it. We knew we wouldn't get away with everything, but we also knew that we were allowed to at least try to get away with stuff. And I got away with some really fun stuff."

For her part, Alexandra Bracken (The Princess, the Scoundrel, and the Farm Boy) was not allowed to read Gidwitz's or Angleberger's adaptations of the original trilogy in advance of writing her adaptation of A New Hope, but she was told about Gidwitz's decision to use the second person.

"It was in the sense that they were trying to show me that I could do whatever I wanted with it. [My editor] told me that, first and foremost, they wanted me to have a ton of fun writing the book," she said. "And initially I was not having fun writing the book because I was so stressed out about it. And then I had a separate visit to Lucasfilm, and the Story Group said, 'You can make little changes and alterations. We just don't want you to contradict something that's in the film itself or anything that's upcoming in The Force Awakens. But you can make little scene adjustments and alter the dialogue a little bit to better suit your needs.'"

Claudia Gray (Lost Stars; Bloodline; Leia: Princess of Alderaan) was initially approached to write a YA "Romeo & Juliet in space" set adjacent to the events of the original trilogy. With a few relatively minor exceptions, she was set loose to write whatever story she wanted. "I thought, when they came to me, they were going to tell me what to write, but that was very much not the case. I had a lot of freedom. The outline had to be approved, but it was my outline and they really let me tell the story I wanted to tell. It was wonderful."

John Jackson Miller (A New Dawn) is one of only a very few authors who straddle the line and has written for the franchise both before and after the Disney purchase. His novels exist in both the "old canon" (now Legends) and "new canon."

Miller explains, "Back before 2014, Lucasfilm had their fiction team proofread everything and approved the stories that go forward. But I think, then, it was more a matter of air traffic control—of them being aware of all the other things that were going on and coming out, and just wanting to make sure that things we did didn't collide with things that were going on elsewhere."

From his perspective, there are a few changes with the Story Group in place, but it's "not so much a matter of content flowing in our direction as the authors, but like 'Hey, here's a character you should name-drop.'" For example, when he was writing his short story "Bottleneck" (which appears in The Rise of the Empire), he was asked to insert a character who would later appear in Alexander Freed's Battlefront: Twilight Company.

"It wasn't a heavy-handed 'This is what this story is about,' but it was guidance in the sense of 'Here's something that's going to come out fairly far down the line, and if you insert this character now, it'll look like we planned it.' And in fact, we did! In the past, it was possible for characters in one medium to pop up in another, but it kind of happened organically and it wasn't something that was done by design."

Cecil Castellucci (Moving Target) had a similar experience. "You have to understand, [I was writing] before The Force Awakens came out. We didn't know what was going to happen, and nobody was allowed to know anything. So there were things in my book, and I didn't even know what I knew. I wrote a framework for the story, and then [the editors] would come in and pepper little things in. It kind of worked like that. I knew that Leia was going to be giving her memoirs to a droid. So I just named the droid whatever. But then they were like, 'No, this is the name of the droid: PZ-4CO.' Because they knew he would end up in the movie. And he does! You hear his name! I was probably the only person who was excited about that. It was kind of like, you do your thing, and then other people come in and course-correct."

So how much freedom did Ben Acker and Ben Blacker (Join the Resistance) have when they started writing their series? Blacker doesn't even hesitate. "Oh, so much freedom. It is absolutely the book that we wanted to write. I would say, there's not really oversight, but there's guidance, and that's really an editor's job. And [our editor] did a really terrific job with it. The big thing that the Story Group (who reads everything) provides is just their knowledge of what's going on in every corner of the Star Wars universe. They're really good at looking at an outline of the manuscript and saying, Well, you can't use this kind of droid because it's no longer in use 30 years after Jedi, but what about this kind of droid? Or instead of using this kind of alien, why don't you make up a new alien so it doesn't have ties to anything and you get to own a piece of the Star Wars universe? That's been a really cool and surprising thing."

What's fascinating about the Star Wars publishing machine is that there's also an entire library of "nonfiction" titles that dive deeper into the details and minutiae of the universe. Adam Bray (Ultimate Star Wars; Star Wars: Absolutely Everything You Need to Know) is intimately familiar with these.

"In 'nonfiction' Star Wars writing, the freedom I have varies a little from project to project. My primary objective is to work within existing canon and tell it like it already is. But sometimes there are gaps that need to be filled in. In these instances, the Story Group folks give me a lot of freedom to invent new information, as long as I run it by them later for approval. This tends to be background details rather than storylines, though occasionally these details might suggest a little story waiting to be told.

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"When I worked on the guides for the animated Star Wars Rebels series, the show was new, so there were lots of vehicles and technology that needed names and stats, so that kept me busy. Numbers and droid names are a fun thing to invent, especially if you can tie them to something meaningful. If I have questions about obscure details, I can consult Leland Chee or Pablo Hidalgo at Lucasfilm. And one or more members of the Story Group always reads my manuscripts, fact-checks, and provides feedback for both in- and out-of-universe content."

The amazing thing about Star Wars, though, is that the members of the Story Group are very accessible to fans. Find me another fandom that can say that. Pablo Hidalgo (@pablohidalgo), Leland Chee (@HolocronKeeper), and Matt Martin (@missingwords) are all very active on Twitter and responsive to fans. But please be respectful and reasonable.

Hidalgo's Twitter bio used to read "2 rules: Don't pitch anything. Please don't ask me about the future."

You can bet they've heard it all.