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Terry Brooks on Star Wars

Noted fantasy author Terry Brooks talks about working with George Lucas on the novelization of The Phantom Menace and about the joy of writing.

If history is any indication, 1999 will be the summer of Star Wars. The first of George Lucas' three planned Star Wars prequels, The Phantom Menace, hits theaters May 19, backed by millions of dollars in advertising and millions more in support for licensed products. The tie-in that may be of general interest to writers is the film's novelization, written by Terry Brooks, the award-winning author of the Shannara books and other fantasy titles. While Brooks couldn't go into detail about the novel's plot, he spoke with Writer's Digest about working with Lucas, how the experience compared with writing his own books and an earlier novelization of Hook, and what makes him excited about writing today.

Writer's Digest: How did you get this assignment?

Terry Brooks: What I know is I got a call from my publisher (Del Rey) asking if I'd like to do another adaptation. I said, "I'd rather be tarred and feathered." Then my contact said, 'Yes, but this is the Star Wars project" I was in the middle of the mall when I was taking this call, and I was looking at all the people shopping. I thought, "If I turn this down, how will I tell my kids?" So I said I would want to meet with George Lucas, hear his vision. The publisher said that's good, because that's what he wants too. So I took a plane down to Skywalker Ranch, had an opportunity to read the script, see the rushes, talk to people. I spent four hours with Lucas and his head of development for subsidiary rights and the person who recruited me.

I also suspect that he knew of my work. The Sword of Shannara, my first book, was being edited about the same time as [the] Star Wars [novelization], and we had the same editor. She used to talk to me about Lucas before the movie came out and before my book came out. I know she also talked to him about me. When we met for the first time, he indicated there was some name recognition, and that that had gone into whether or not he thought I could do this.

WD: Was the shift in genre to science fiction from fantasy difficult?

Brooks: I told Lucas, "I think we're more on the same page than most people would think. We're both writing adventure stories. What you do with science fiction trappings, I do with fantasy." He and I are about the same age and grew up with many of the same influences, and that's part of what made me feel comfortable with taking on a project like this. I told everyone involved, "If you wanted to bring in someone who's going to write science fiction, you've got the wrong person. I'll need help with the technospeak. I'm interested in the people and their histories."

There are some very strong similarities between Shannara and Star Wars: the light and dark sides, flawed family histories impacting future generations, the usage of magical powers, how do you make it work.

WD: What was it like to work with Lucas?

Brooks: I was impressed with how thoroughly he had thought this out. He was easy to work with. He wanted the book to be a different experience than the movie. Movie-goers who read the book would discover an expansion of the movie; a different experience, expanding on his story in ways he was unable to do in the limits of film. I was allowed to do a number of chapters that are not in the movie, [because] there's a lot of history that's not in the movie just for time and space constraints. That made it a more intriguing project for me.

The understanding was he had the final say. If he didn't like what I did, he could change it or do what he wanted. But he wasn't concerned that I follow the dialogue exactly as it was in the movie. He wanted the story to be true to the movie's story arc, its spirit, but to have a different kind of impact. He understands there's a radical difference between screenwriting and reading. The movie is all visuals, whereas on the printed page, you're creating the images in your mind. The ability to shift around dialogue and juxtapose scenes makes this a much stronger book. It's really not a novelization, but a novel.

...I had some help with the terminology, because I don't understand all that stuff. But Lucas didn't make any major changes, just last-minute changes [due to changes] in the movie during the editing process. I was quite surprised; he left all the original work alone.

WD: How long did it take?

Brooks: About 100 days. The adaptation process goes quite smoothly, you're blocking out bits of the script, figuring out where the transitions go. The writing goes very smoothly when the framework is firmly in place. It's much different than when you're writing from scratch and deciding how to connect the next scene.

WD: If we read the book, do we need to see the movie?

Brooks: You have to do both. The book has so much more information. It starts in a different place. The emphasis is somewhat different. But you have to see the movie for the visual impact, the action sequences, the strange and exotic backgrounds.

It doesn't make any difference which you do first. Usually, the reason not to read the book before seeing the movie is that you don't want to give away the ending. But unless it's a mystery or whodunit where figuring out the ending is part of the enjoyment, it's not a big deal to me. The movie is so wonderful visually that you should see it in the theater.

It's one of those rare experiences where people will like both the book and the movie.

WD: How did this compare with your novelization of Hook, and is novelization an experience you'd recommend to other writers?

Brooks: Hook was not a particularly good experience. Mainly it had to do with what I was allowed to do. Controls were much tighter, yet I didn't get to talk to the people at the top. While I thought the book was good, it was a huge hassle to get everything done. I had an editor who fought tooth and nail for me, but it was very unclear who had authority. Afterward, I thought, "Why did I waste my time on this project?" In addition to the director, we had a series of writers, and there was almost none of that in [this project], I think because Lucas was the driving force.

...If you're a writer who's well-known and has had success, you can be picky about your projects. I don't know if I would do any other [novelization] job but this one. But if you're an up-and-coming or midlist writer, this can be an excellent opportunity. Use it as a jumping-off point for your career.

WD: Was it harder writing about characters you hadn't developed yourself?

Brooks: When you're given characters whole cloth, in a finite time when you know what's going to happen to them, you still can flesh it out and expand on what's been given to you. In this particular instance... they were interesting characters to begin with.

There were certain areas where I couldn't go—he's got two more episodes to go [in the prequel trilogy]. Even so, I got a lot of freedom talking about the characters. We know this little boy [Anakin Skywalker] is going to end up as Darth Vader, but I could do a lot of things with what he is now and where he's going. There were enough intriguing things that I didn't feel stifled.

WD: Did this experience make you want to write a screenplay of one of your own novels?

Brooks: There's a fairly famous novelist. I want his deal. He gets $1 million for one draft; for a second draft, $2 million. In the absence of a deal like that, I don't think so.

WD: Are you interested in writing the novels for the next two films?

Brooks: From an artistic standpoint, I would be interested, but I have some concerns.... I've had three books [including this novel] out in 13 months, and I have two more books due in the next 20 months. I've got a very rough writing and promotional schedule. Angel Fire East, the third book in the Knight of the Word series, is finished up and will be published in October. I'm now writing the first of a new set of Shannara books set for June 2000. It's a fairly complex undertaking. I've always done the same thing with Shannara; I leave it, then come back excited and charged.

WD: When you came back to Shannara earlier, you wrote a prequel. Was the experience similar when you began the Star Wars novel?

Brooks: With a prequel, you're given a history and some characters, and your mission is to build an interesting story around the people who preceded those characters. You can have some series of surprises and unexpected happenings, even given that everyone knows the ending.

Writing a prequel is a different challenge. Some are awful. First King of Shannara (a prequel) stands on its own; I was happy with it. A lot of my writing leaves things unresolved. It's up to the readers to use their imaginations. I don't like books that tell me everything.

WD: Let's talk about writing advice. You're known as an advocate of outlining before writing. Do you still use this technique?

Brooks: I teach that at writing conferences ad nauseum. You must outline your work. I have what might be called spirited discussions with writers who don't. For those who are new, unpublished or struggling, outlining teaches you two things. First, it teaches you to think your story through from beginning to end. That keeps you from throwing away 100 pages, and I don't have that kind of time. Second, if you do make changes—and you will—if you've thought it all through, then you know how the change will affect the outline, it gives you a blueprint. I've got 6 to 12 months to put together a book. I don't remember what happened last week. If I don't have something to steer me, I'll leave loose ends.

WD: You've also advised writers not to focus on being published until their skill has matured. How long does someone need to write before being concerned about publishing?

Brooks: People mature with their writing at different stages. Some are prepared to be published right away. Writers don't talk about the stuff that got them to where they are. I began writing when I was 10 and was published when I was 31. There was a lot of stuff that never saw the light of day, and rightfully so. You're working from one stage to the next. My books are better written today than The Sword of Shannara. I have better ways of expressing myself. With most writers, you shouldn't even think about getting published at the beginning. You have to love it enough that not getting published is not going to destroy you. If you get all tied up in knots over that, it begins to destroy the joy and exuberance you bring to writing. A lot of people get published—just go with a vanity press, and your problems are over. I want to be read. You have to convey to the readers how you feel about your work, the joy you feel, bring them into the experience. You only find that after you've been published.

WD: Many of our readers say they become discouraged because writing is hard.

Brooks: If you're deterred by the idea it's hard, you're probably in the wrong game. Do it for your own enjoyment. Sure, it's hard, but it's good hard, it's enjoyable hard, it gives me such a sense of joy to accomplish something. If it's just hard and you're doing it for some reason other than joy and satisfaction, I think you're in trouble. Some writers I know who are successful are no longer happy with the writing process. They're dropping out, burning out. If I were at that point, I'd have to quit.

The world is full of people who tell you, "You can't do that." If you want to do it badly enough, you will find a way to get there.

This article appeared in the June 1999 issue of Writer's Digest.

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