How Matthew Stover’s ‘Revenge of the Sith’ Made Me The Writer I Am Today

Be mindful of your influences, Edinger: they reveal you.

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Reveal me to be a huge nerd, for one.

I make fun of the Star Wars prequels a lot, but I have no malice towards them. I was 6, 9, and 12 respectively when Episodes I, II, and III came to theaters— I was at the perfect age to watch them. They’re bad movies, ones that I have difficulty rewatching, but Episodes I and II still gave me a few hours entertainment and a wellspring for imagination back in my single-digit days. I left out Episode III in that mention because I still love that movie. There are two camps regarding ‘Revenge of the Sith.’ Some say it’s a last hurrah that proved itself worthy of the name Star Wars with excellent action, legitimate catharsis, and a devastating tragic story. Others say it’s just as much a mess as ‘Menace’ or ‘Clones,’ still plagued with lackluster acting, a rushed pace, and just plain bad directing. I exist in both camps simultaneously. Maybe it’s because the movie’s such a shot of raw emotion and energy as compared to its dull brothers. Maybe I’m just a child who’s easily amused by multiple flashy fights and recognizable (marketable) icons. I don’t care. It’s my number one guilty pleasure, and I fell both more and less guilty about it depending on what day I’m thinking about said movie.

Back in 2005, when I first saw ‘Revenge of the Sith,’ I absolutely loved the movie, no guilt there. So how excited I became when, on vacation, I picked up Matthew Stover’s novelization (which you can read for yourself in the link) for August reading. I thought I’d just relive some pleasant cinematic memories back when I started reading it. After finishing the book, I knew then and there that I wanted to be a writer.

Pretty crazy, right? Some people are inspired to write by tragic evens or a need to create or a classically recognized book. I could’ve been cool and said that my actual favorite book of all time (Frankenstein) got me into writing. But no, it was the spinoff of a film franchise. I could talk about the positives of this book; the beautiful prose, the fully realized characters, the great metaphors; but in a sense, doing so would feel like trying to justify my own work. For you see, I can trace nearly all the elements of my own writing, good and bad, to the creative decisions of this book.

Let’s start with the element of my writing that I’m trying to fix: the unclear descriptions. Both Stover and I use long and complex sentences to describe unusual or alien things. Both of us are not as clear when doing so, however. Pretty prose, but not great for clarity. Stover has an excuse. Say you read a passage from him like “Sometimes his [Obi-Wan’s] whirling spinning dive through the cloud of battle skimmed bursts so closely that the energy-scatter would slam his starfighter hard enough to bounce his head off of the supports of his pilot’s chair.” That sentence is in the first paragraph of this book, and it could take a bunch of rereads to understand. But if you see the film before reading this— like I did and I assume others did— you read this and go, “Oh, it’s that shot where Obi-Wan goes into a space battle and his head knocks into the back of his cockpit chair.” Here’s the problem: when I write like that, no one gets to see the movie version of what I meant. Stover’s style is appropriate because it doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

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It’s so dense…

If you did read this without knowing about Star Wars, you’d be hella confused. Do you know what an “energy-scatter” even is? I reckon you can guess, its name seems self-definitive. But Stover tries to world-build like that a lot, and it doesn’t always work. I can guess what a turboblaster or humaniform droid is, but what’s an electordriver? And may the Force help you if you go into this novel not knowing about the Force. I only reread this story a few days ago, and guess what? A few months ago, I wrote a sci-fi short story trying to world-build in this exact manner with confusing results. When you imitate something, make sure you know why that something is doing it in the first place.

One of the ways this book improved my writing for the better was in terms of character. In particular, how important they are. First off: when you’re reading a book, you can make the actors in your head as good as you want. All the major players; Obi-Wan, Anakin, Padme, Count Dooku, Sidious; are given wonderful descriptions from the third person omniscient narrator who loves these people and knows (and explains, which my writing needs to do) what makes them tick. Some people criticize the prequels because they’re too focused on politics. I maintain, especially after rereading this book, that the problem’s not dealing with politics, but dealing with politics badly. Star Wars is a vast universe, and a political setting can let those vast parts interact. This story knows what makes politics interesting: good characters, and the emotional relationships that build them. We don’t care as much about Chancellor Palpatine gaining more executive power, but we do care about how this brings brave and defiant Padme into conflict with her husband and Palpatine’s friend, the heroic-but-secretly-terrified Anakin. ‘Revenge of the Sith’ is the most emotionally charged of the prequels, and having characters that can express, play with, and desperately hide those emotions really brings out the tragedy in this story. The action scenes are kind of hard to read in this novelization. But Stove shows his mastery when he just has two people and a room to work with. My hands became stapled to this book during those parts.

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General Grievous is still one-note, but the book makes him EVEN MORE AWESOME, if that’s even possible.

Oh yeah, metaphors! The metaphors in this book are good too, which explains why I packed a lot of them in my older writing. In particular, I recall Stover describing Anakin’s gnawing fears as a dragon: always lurking, always reminding him of mortality, always stronger than him. Anakin doesn’t just turn to the Dark Side to save Padme; he does it so he can crush the dragon under his heel and say to it, “I am Darth Vader, and you are nothing.” Beforehand, people in the Republic called Anakin “The Hero With No Fear.” He never believed it. Now, after becoming Darth Vader and crushing the dragon, he finally can believe in the “Hero With No Fear” myth, even at the expense of others’ well-being and lives. See how this is much better than just saying, “Anakin is scared”? That’s not even the end of that character arc, which ends on a devastating note. Thing happening in character’s heads are already kind of unreal. Metaphors help make them real to the audience. I may go overboard with this in my writing, but segments like this remind me why I started doing it.

I guess it’s a given that I’m influenced by the whole of Star Wars, not just this book. I’d go as far as to say that I, like George Lucas himself, sometimes needs help unpacking the worlds in my head. And that’s what Stover’s great accomplishment in this book was. He took the rushed Dark Side transformation from the movie and unpacked it, made sure we understood the characters, made the journey slower and more relatable. Someone once said that the ultimate sin of an adaptation is to make the audience question why they liked the original work in the first place. Stover did the opposite— he made me appreciate the original more, and made me wish that Lucas had Stover on board with screenwriting so that Lucas could flesh out and explain his ideas better. Some things the book can’t fix. How anyone doesn’t realize that Palpatine’s the evilest dude in the galaxy is beyond me, and both book and movie waffle on whether the Jedi Order is corrupt or noble at this point in history. Still less of a guilty pleasure for me to read than to watch.

That’s what I’m thankful for this (belated) Thanksgiving: influences and the sometimes slightly embarrassing places they come from. This book will always have a special place in my heart. But, if I’m going to improve my writing, maybe I should get it out of my head for a bit.

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Motivation vs. Commitment vs. The Third Option

Eventually, you all are going to learn to not trust me.

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For example, I might tell you to go straight right here.

About a month and a half ago, I posted some advice regarding whether one should write when one feels like it or if one should stick to a rigid schedule. And look who you’re getting advice from: an unpublished author who still has much to learn. This blog is more than an advice/review/awesome stories hub. It’s a document of my progress as a writer. And I’ve progressed to the point where I think blind commitment isn’t an easy, fix-it-all solution.

Most of this new writing strategy is for the benefit of my mental health instead of my writing life. My therapist and I, working though the various inner parts that exist in me, discovered viciousness in the critical part. Critical parts should act like a gentle nudge to your heart. My critical part, psychologically and physiologically, acted like a battering ram. My anxiety leads to depression, and my critical parts lead to anxiety. So, in the past few months, I’ve shifted from bowing down to the critical parts to raging against the critical parts to comforting the critical parts when they act up. I began to see the critical parts (an interpretation based on a dream of mine) as a dying old man, grabbing onto my shoulders with desperate occasional lunges while I dutifully stayed by his bedside at the request of my family— the people who developed my conscience and, as an indirect result, gave me the dying old man. Nowadays, instead of letting the old man pull me down, I console him while I slowly, in my head, remove his hands from my shoulders. I lay him down. He’s dying, he can’t rule over me anymore. That’s what I go though when the critical parts try to bully their way into making me do something, even if it’s writing.

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So that Tumblr post that tells you to force yourself to create? Maybe not best for me at this stage of my life. And something else worth noting: I’ve exceeded all my writing goals these past few weeks just by writing when I feel like it. Ok, that’s not entirely true. I also had hella lots of assignments due in all of my classes. But this time, instead of stressing out over the projects, I went with the flow, listened to my heart’s desires. Used the Force, in other words. And I came through the whole process, of major projects required from classes all at once, less stressed than I should have been. The only time I fell into depression this November was when I said No, Nick, you’re going to have to postpone bedtime for another four hours so you can work. After you sleep, you will continue working until it’s all done.

Am I forced, then, to choose between my art and my health? Not forever, no. One day I’ll be able to listen to my critical parts without wanting to shut down. But for now, I need to let free the part of me that really loves to write. It exists, no doubt. But forcing yourself into writing can splash water on a furnace of creativity, only creating smoke to make the furnace less effective and everything else smoky.

The third option, when it comes to when you should write, is to force yourself to follow your heat’s immediate and fleeting whims. Write or edit when you feel like it. But whenever that feeling strikes— and for writers, it will happen often— pick it up and lose yourself in the process without hesitation. Even if “you’re writing the wrong things.” Even if “you should be working on other projects.”

I’ve kept my weekly goal with this blog, and now you know it’s not because I’m forcing myself to.

Star Wars Episode VIII: Dark Force Rising

Superpowers exist in the Star Wars universe. If you remember Grand Admiral Thrawn from last time, his superpower is super-racism.

Yes, it shocked me to find out about that as well. But when you read events in The Thrawn Trilogy where Thrawn says “Oh the Pxyxlxnsx species won’t do three-point-turns in space because they psychologically can’t handle it,” it’s easy to imagine a political candidate working out how to appeal to minority voters in the same vein. Or Rommel invading Egypt with an army of locusts in order to expose a perceived psychological weakpoint. This is the easy trap to fall into when you’re writing alien species, where every single member of your warrior race is strong, headstrong, sings work songs, and have long dongs. Everyone’s the same, and there’s no way that can be real. It makes me wonder about the Vulcans that are our equivalent to punk anarchists or DJs or something.

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Thrawn’s so tiny! How cute!

Anyways, welcome back to our retrospective on Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy, in particular the second book in the cycle. This book’s title: Dark Force Rising. And let me leap back to the first book to elaborate on a point I smacked on that post like a “100% organic reflection! Honest!” sticker. I talked about why the Star Wars movies outgrew Heir to the Empire, but didn’t elaborate on what grew to what. So let’s go back to 1983 and ask people what Star Wars is. They’d say it’s an adventure tale, an action serial, a rip-roaring good time with enough philosophy and emotion to separate it from other action movies. That’s what the series was at the time. But in 2005, people would describe the entirety of Star Wars as a saga, an epic mythology, a operatic tale that cycles themes, quotes, and ideas. Star Wars 4-6 is like Flash Gordon; Star Wars 1-6 is like Greek Mythology (and not just because both the prequels and Zeus fucked mortals up). Star Wars 4-6 is a three-part episode of ‘Batman: The Animated Series,’ while Star Wars 1-6 is The Dark Knight Trilogy. Now imagine if they made another movie in the Dark Knight movieverse where Batman just defeats a guy. It may be a cool guy, and it may be a fun time, but it wouldn’t justify three movies worth of buildup and the ruination of a finished character arc. Star Wars 4-6 is a three-part TV episode, Star Wars 1-6 is an epic movie series, Star Wars 1-6 plus the Thrawn Trilogy is an epic movie series followed by a TV episode with TV-like stakes and arcs. The Thrawn trilogy was once just a continuation of a serial- compared to the mass the Star Wars movies evolved into both in scope and in popular consciousness, the Thrawn Trilogy is not a big enough, or worthy, follow-up.

This is a roundabout way of saying that the stakes in Dark Force Rising are too small and no one cares. The subplots- one with an ambitious Rebel leader arresting Akbar with a false accusation of treason, another one we’ll discuss later- are interesting. The main plot is a MacGuffin hunt, a search for a lost fleet of technologically-advanced-yet-strategically-iffy warships. They say whomever gets to the warships first, New Republic or Empire Remnants, will turn the tide of the war. “Watch us raise the stakes while we postpone the question of whether the stakes’ll be raised!” We went from moon that can blow up planets, to shocking revelations, to shocking revelations and a moon that can blow up planets, to a really cool bad guy, and arrive now at a scavenger hunt. Boy, isn’t that a ramp? Maybe this kind of smaller conflict is for the best, so we don’t have the ridiculous lightsaber escalation that occurred in the prequels. But this threat should pump fear in my bloodstream, and it’s not. One reason concerns the minimalist, imagery-deprived prose of author Zahn, which moves along action without letting time for describing scope or magnitude.

The other reason deals with Thrawn. Thrawn, bless his heart, loses so much. The fandom considers him such a badass that they forget how bad he is at chasing ass. He always is a pinch away from catching a hero or outwitting a member of The Holy Trio before Thrawn’s prey zips away. The Grand Admiral captures one character in this book, and guess what? Luke and Mara (Mara’s a former Imperial assassin) bust said character out of a Star Destroyer prison block in a series of lucky escapes and coincidences that are a blast to read and are also a moment to consider how many scented meditation candles Thrawn must now buy so he can stay calm this time. And even when (SPOILERS COMING CROSS YOUR LEGS) Thrawn takes most of the Dark Force fleet at the end, the worry is dampened by Thrawn’s previous failures (TERROR LEVEL LOWERED, SPOILERS GONE). Luke had some lucky escapes in the past, but even then he lost a mentor, and hand, or a father, you know, something actually devastating.

The highlight of this book comes from the meeting of Joruus and Luke. The Imperials spread rumors of a rediscovered Jedi Master throughout the galaxy. That way, when Luke hears Joruus’ voice in his head asking him to resume his training on Joruus’ planet, Luke doesn’t suspect the Imperial trap Joruus has been setting. Joruus now has the opportunity to turn Luke to the Dark Side while pretending to be a Light-Sider. The two Jedi- one good, one evil and bonkers- meet on Jormark, Joruus’ planet of choice. This meeting precedes a tense encounter (another highlight in the book) where Luke and Joruus are asked to mediate a complicated spat between two cheated individuals. Something similar happened to Luke earlier in the book, on a different planet. When Luke was by himself judging a dispute, he listened to both sides, deliberated, then reached a compromised-but-fair decision. Joruus, in a near-identical situation on Jormark, invades the mind of one of the participants and uses that information to Force-lightening the bollocks off of the one he thinks is responsible. Before this event, the Jormark story arc was a dark mirror to Yoda training Luke, with a Dark Side master in place of a Light one. This scene, in particular, mirrors the dispute from earlier in the book, and moves Luke from thinking “he’s a weird guy, but I need guidance,” to “maybe this Jedi Master isn’t so masterful.” This is a good way of sequalizing- build on what was before, twisting it until it’s beyond a repeat. There’s a lot of sympathy for Luke combined with dramatic tension over Joruus’ Imperial motivations and Joruus’ crazy-based motivations.

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I meant to get a picture of Joruus, but I think I accidentally traveled to the future and pinched a drawing of Alan Moore instead.

Only Joruus C’Boath is not insane. Not really. Even though everyone says he is. He’s just power hungry, desperate to bring his warped Jedi-on-top-of-food-chain-by-messing-with-Muggle-brains philosophy into dominant Imperial Goals. And that’s the problem with this character, this book, and the entire trilogy- nothing’s expanded on. The prose is business-oriented, getting us to the next scene with minimal time setting the previous scene or developing moments. I’d do the same, I imagine, if I was to write a follow-up to 3 action movies that kept the pace going and I already had a universe developed for me. The prose is cut down in service of… of what, the high stakes? The best parts in this book are character-driven subplots, not the endlessly repeating space battles or the repetitive Thrawn failures. This book would’ve been fine at 50 pages longer- it’s overall the slowest section of The Thrawn Trilogy, and the pacing should serve the content.

Am I focusing on the negative because I automatically like books with Star Wars in the title, and I’m only waking up to that now? Not according to the many Expanded Universe novels I gave away to my library while keeping these three books for re-reading many years later. Worlds change. Mine does on a weekly basis, and my views on this book change from chapter to chapter. Check out the series not just for what it is, but what can be built off of it- and what things looked like in a franchise while it was still expanding.

NEXT TIME: The Last Command! Can I nurture my love for this Trilogy while more weeds spring up?