My Conan Adventure: Part Two
Back in the late 1980s my novel writing career began with the publication of the novels I did for BattleTech. While working with FASA, I got to know Fred Malmberg of Target Games of Sweden. They had a project called Mutant Chronicles and asked if I would write a trilogy for them. My schedule didn’t have that sort of space in it, but we worked out a deal where two other writers, William F. Wu and John-Allen Price, would join me in doing the trilogy. I helped set up the series of three books, letting them go first, then I tied it all together with the novel Dementia.
Over the next decade I lost track of Fred and Target Games. Then I got an email asking my availability for doing some Conan work. My schedule was locked up for a year at that point, so I was told they’d try back later. I didn’t exactly know who “they” were, but in a year I learned that Fred Malmberg was heading up Paradox Entertainment, and they had the rights to Conan. They’d worked a deal with Penguin to produce novels set in Howard’s Hyborean world, and had a dozen or so come out from Loren Coleman, Jeff Mariotte and J. Steven York.
During my career I’d had a number of readers approach me and say, “I liked [X book of mine], but never read any of your franchise work because, you know, I don’t read those books.” I’d always found that attitude a bit puzzling, since good authors are not that easy to find, and when I find an author I like, I want to read all of their stuff. Regardless, I made a decision that my fantasy work would only be in my own universes, so such readers could freely go there. When I made that decision, however, I carved out a couple of reservations, and one exception to that rule that I was willing to make was to write Conan.
Why? Howard, among others, was highly influential in how I work. I loved his stories and the ability to play in that world and give something back was an opportunity I wasn’t going to walk away from. And it’s not an about me thing, it’s about writing the kind of story that Howard would have written, were he writing today. When I write in someone else’s universe, using their iconic characters, my goal is to be true to their vision. I’m a steward of their property. It’s not mine. I know that. I respect that. I just want to create the best adventure I can in that world, sharing with new readers the same thrill I felt when I first read Howard’s work.
I’d just gotten a new agent when Fred got in touch about me writing for Conan. I was willing to do the job, but there were a couple things I wanted. The first was to be able to use Conan as a character. If I couldn’t do that, I wasn’t sure I saw the purpose of playing in that world. Second, since there was a movie coming up, I wanted a shot at doing the novelization. There were a couple other minor things on the contract front that we dealt with, and I’m pretty sure my agent was surprised at some of the points I pushed back on. As it was, Paradox was willing to give me the novelization, provided I committed to writing three novels for them. When the smoke cleared, I signed a contract in 2005 that included writing the novelization for the Conan movie.
Then Hollywood happened. Almost immediately I got sent a treatment for a script that would have been great to work on. It looked like that was going to be a done-deal, but the producer/director suddenly got a development deal with a studio and it went away. Options and deals got made and ran out. I think I got one other script before the deal was struck to do Conan the Barbarian in its present form. In March of 2010 they started shooting and I got sent a script which was 2/3rds of the final script. The rest was being worked on. Later I got a full script, and at Gencon in August 2010 I got to see stills from the movie. Very impressive.
The thing about my contract was that it was an “on call” contract—my wording for it, but it sounds good, so we’ll use it. The deal was simple: at some point Paradox Entertainment would say “Go,” and I’d have 60 days to deliver an 80,000 word manuscript. This, as you can imagine, made scheduling for 2010 a little tough—and there were points prior to that when I kept things clear just in case. Rolling on down into December 2010 I got the final script and was waiting—now having to put Of Limited Loyalty on hold to do the Conan book. Night Shade, understanding how good this deal would be for attracting readers, was quite gracious about the delay.
I’d heard, in September, that they had the first rough cut. Then they did some reshoots. Paradox was waiting for them to get a cut together so I could see the film, then I’d be free to write the novelization. I was a stickler on this point: without seeing the movie, I couldn’t get a feel for the film’s tone. So I waited.
Then, in January, Penguin announced that the novel would be published on 7 July, six weeks or so before the movie hit. This was great for the novel; but there was a problem—there was no novel. Moreover, the news that I was doing the novel hit the hardcore fan community like a hammer. On one website the forums had a long thread discussing which author should be “allowed” to write the novelization; and my name never appeared in that discussion. The reactions to the announcement were not positive, and generally along the line of, “Who is this clown and why is he writing the novel for our character?”
Luckily I’d encountered this before. Back when the Star Wars® X-wing novels were announced, a similar question was asked about me in old usenet threads. I recall reading one reply which was beautiful: “I read BattleTech novels. Our loss is your gain.” While I had a couple of defenders on the Conan boards, I got savaged for a bunch of stuff on my website. People were determined to hate me and hate the book I’d not had the chance to write yet.
Time rolled into February and Penguin is getting a bit anxious—understandably so. Paradox arranged with the studio for a showing of the rough cut—that being the film without special effects shots, scenery or score. Lines of dialogue may not be in yet, and scenes can come and go. (In fact, a great scene that was in the rough cut and in the novel, didn’t make it into the final movie—but I hope it will appear in the Director’s Cut.) A screening got set for 10 February, but got canceled on 9 February. Then almost immediately rescheduled for 14 February.
14 February I flew over to LA where Jay Zetterberg of Paradox picked me up at the airport. We stopped at the Paradox office, then went over to the production company’s office and, along with another writer, got to see the rough cut. I got a good sense of the movie and really liked what the actors brought to their roles. Specifically Ron Perleman and Rose McGowan really lit up the screen. Their performances made writing chapters from their points of view incredibly easy. And while a lack of special effects meant that some of the combat sequences showed actors ducking and dodging from things that just didn’t exist, or had them acting in front of green screens, it all held together strongly.
After the movie, back in the Paradox offices, we agreed that I’d do a bit more than novelize the script. I’d get to add extra material into the book and take some liberties with scene order, to make the novel work. The primary reason for this was practical: I had to fill a novel with 80,000 words and a two-hour movie just doesn’t have enough material to do that without an unforgivable amount of padding. Second, however, we wanted to counter criticisms about the story based on a leaked early version of the script which painted the whole story as a revenge story. Since that aspect of Conan’s life had never existed in the Howard stories, the Howard fans were justifiably miffed that the movie was tossing it in there. (What they missed, alas, is that the movie has to stand on its own. While they’re reading it into the entire Conan continuity, casual movie-goers want a complete story, and that theme helps tie it all together.) Adding material that puts that aspect into perspective within the Howard Canon was not difficult, and gave me things that tied the whole novel together.
On the 15th of February I was back home and did a scene by scene breakdown of the script. I added in all the extra material I needed, including scenes that were in the script but not in the movie, and perspective/reaction bits necessary to set up the novel. I also made an effort to inject more magick into the story. What a movie can do with special effects and sound effects, I have to spend a lot of words to accomplish. Luckily adding in extra scenes made that easy.
I started writing on 16 February and finished on 11 March, having written for 17 of those 23 days. My process was simple: get up, write a chapter, take a break during which I’d read a Howard story or portions thereof, write another chapter, take another break, read more Howard, write another chapter and end the day reading more Howard. I was constantly checking continuity, footnoting places where I deviated from the script or showing where I’d gotten the basis for a comment, and moving on. Not only did I use Howard’s original stories, but I used the Dark Horse comics and essays written about Howard’s work to provide justification for what I was doing. That was a technique I’d used previously to good effect with Lucasfilm, and it made continuity checking much easier here.
The book went off to Paradox and Penguin on the 12th of March. Inside a week it was back, and by 1 April I had finished the edits and returned everything to Penguin. Aside from a couple of minor points of clarification, all that the manuscript needed was the usual grammar clean up and we were good to go.
It should be noted here that I was in a very fortunate position. I only had to deal with Paradox, not the studios, when it came to approval. I’ve talked to lots of other writers who have nightmare stories about dealing with studios on similar projects. Filmmaking is a collaborative process, where writers, actors, directors, producers and cinematographers all combine their skills to create the movie. As a result, that culture feels a lot more free about suggesting additions and changes—a process completely alien to the culture of the solitary novelist.
The novel hit the stands on 7 July. I waited about two weeks, then peeked at the comment boards again, bracing for a negative reaction. As it was, the very worst comment I saw read something like this: “Well, it didn’t suck as bad as I thought it would.” I took that as high praise. Elsewhere, aside from comments of folks who are determined to hate the book and the movie simply because it isn’t a Howard story written by Robert E. Howard, reactions have been good to great.
And then, in the tail end of July came my greatest challenge in the whole Conan adventure—well, save one that I’ll deal with another time. I was invited to attend the Conan the Barbarian world premiere in Los Angeles. The invitation was for me “plus one.”
I had to figure out who that plus one would be.
This series of posts about my Conan experience stems directly from my involvement with writing the novelization of the new movie. You can snag the book for your Kindle or as a physical copy just by clicking those links. The novelization expands on the movie, including original material, cut scenes and a lot of scenes shot from Marique’s point of view.
If you like that, you might also want to try
my digital original novel, In Hero Years… I’m Dead is available for the Kindle and in the epub format for all the other readers, including the Nook, iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad. (Imagine the Batman, Watchmen and Kick-Ass movies all rolled into one, as written by Dashiell Hammett, and you’ve pretty much got the idea of the book. Oh, and with some satire and political commentary slipped in for irony.)