Saturday, May 14, 2011

How I Wrote A Star Wars Story (and got paid for it)

One of the most fun writing projects I ever participated in was the second Star Wars anthology, Tales From Jabba's Palace. At the time I was invited, my first novel, Jaydium, had recently been released and I had a handful of professional-market short story sales to my credit; I was writing then as Deborah Wheeler. I met the editor, Kevin J. Anderson, at a convention.

Kevin had just started reading Jaydium and was impressed enough to think, "Aha! This is just the writer I'm looking for to fill one of the remaining anthology slots." Once he explained that this would be work-for-hire and subject to the approval of Paramount Studios and I'd signed a bunch of forms, we got to work.

Kevin wanted a "braided" anthology, with stories intersecting and overlapping as much as possible. Each author got a different minor character who worked or lurked in Jabba's Palace. Some were described in "the bible" from the movie, but a few were original (like Barbara Hambly's cook, for every gangster needs his own chef). Every story had to include a scene from the movie, as well. We were each asked to circulate an outline of our story to all the other authors and then to correspond with one another on details.

Since I joined the anthology team late, I didn't have much choice of character. I got "Ree-Yees," the three-eyed, goat-headed fellow hovering around the opening scenes. The reference materials said he was not very bright and usually drunk. Okay, I thought, I can have fun with that. Kevin suggested that, in addition to the usual scheming and rivalry among Jabba's underlings, the Empire itself might have reason to get rid of Ree-Yees.

Here's what I sent to the other writers:

    Ree-Yees story synopsis

    Background: Ree-Yees, exiled from his home planet for murder, has been recruited by the Empire to assassinate Jabba the Hutt in exchange for amnesty. Parts for the bomb which Ree-Yees is to plant on Jabba's sail barge have been smuggled in through the kitchen in shipments of goatgrass. Ree-Yees is particularly anxious about the shipments because an earlier one disappeared, just before Jabba suffered such a bad bout of indigestion that he now suspects the cook of trying to poison him. Jabba has his own uses for Ree-Yees: shortly after Ree-Yees's arrival at the Palace, Jabba had him drugged and implanted with a very-short-range bomb and a posthypnotic detonation command, thus rendering Ree-Yees a sort of kamikaze assassin.
    After the arrival of the strange droids, Ree-Yees takes advantage of the disruption to sneak away, bearing a bucket of Jabba's leavings for the frog-dog tethered outside. Checking the receiver concealed in a false wart, he learns that the final component of the bomb -- the detonator -- would arrive that night.
    Ree-Yees creeps into the kitchen, only to find the detonator gone and the scullion dead. Before Ree-Yees can remove the body and pin the murder on someone else, a Gamorrean guard stumbles in, hoping for a late night snack. Ree-Yees spins a patently ridiculous story, which the guard believes, carrying away the body to begin his own investigation.
    Ree-Yees, stunned and relieved, downs his entire flask of Sollustan gin and wavers off. Visions come to him, the same ones which have plagued his drunken dreams -- visions of an icy plain, a forest world -- and his own home planet. Too drunk to realize what he is doing, Ree-Yees follows these visions to their source, a room deep within the labyrinth of tunnels, where the surgically removed brains of the B'morr monks generate powerful telepathic emanations. Ree-Yees receives an overwhelming image of fire, which he takes to mean he will ultimately succeed in his mission.
    On board the sail barge the next morning, all hell breaks loose. Leia springs into action, throttling Jabba with her chains. In desperation, Jabba struggles to utter the detonation command. Ree-Yees feels the compulsion, starts to draw closer. Through his drunken stupor, he instinctively senses that if he does, he will never see his home again. He resists -- feebly, but just long enough for Leia to finish Jabba off.
    As soon as Leia leaves, Ree-Yees starts scheming how he will convince the Empire he killed Jabba. Everything is turning out better than he hoped. Maybe he will be able to take over part of Jabba's business from his home planet.
    He remembers the monks' vision of engulfing flames a moment before the sail barge explodes.

As it happened, I knew the writers who were handling the Gamorrean guard (William F. Wu) and the chef (Barbara Hambly). Note that the chef was not part of my original plan. His role emerged when Barbara read my outline. We talked on the phone and by email, and I wrote the scene in which Ree-Yees discovers Porcellus the cook, standing over the body of the scullery boy.Barbara came up with the next part, where Porcellus, who's already in fear of his life because of Jabba's previous bout of indigestion, yelps, "I had nothing to do with it!" Then Bill had the guard, slower of wit, look at the dead body and say something quite incomprehensible but which means, "What's wrong with him?" The ball was now in my court, so Ree-Yees babbles that he found the body somewhere else and brought it to the kitchen to attempt "emergency culinary resuspiration" (the smell of food so ripe it can wake the dead). Gartogg, the guard, then slings the body over his shoulder and spends the rest of his own story carrying it around. I then sent a draft of my story to Bill and Barbara, who wove the scene into their own tales, each time with a different perspective.

Some of the anthology stories didn't overlap at all, but others did to a more minor degree. Often the central character of one story would wander through a scene in another. It was wonderful to get an insider's peek into the creative process of other writers, exchanging comments and drafts of scenes. The experience offered the excitement of collaboration and the autonomy of being a single author. The only thing more fun than writing a story for a braided anthology would be to edit it!

Then came the process of review and approval by Paramount. They liked my concept but made me take out a reference to "the rutabaga god," insisting that the Star Wars universe has no rutabagas. (Apparently it has no ants, either, so they made Barbara change them to "myrmidons" in her SW novel.) Oh, well. They let me keep "emergency culinary resuspiration," so I really had nothing to complain about. I had a wonderful time writing the story and being part of a collaborative creative community. Perhaps that's one of the not-so-secret joys of a shared world.

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