Frequently Asked Questions
(Rev. 1.2, compiled 2 March 2010)
Michael A. Stackpole is a an award-winning game designer, computer game designer and novelist in the science fiction and fantasy field. He is best known for his work in FASA’s BattleTech® universe and for his Star Wars® X-wing comics (from Dark Horse Comics) and bestselling Star Wars® novels from Bantam Books.
You have two novels, In Hero Years… I’m Dead and Mysterious Ways (the Bloodstone novel). When can we expect to see them?
With the advent of digital publishing, probably in 2010 or 2011. Just a question of squeezing in the final edits and getting them out there.
I’ve heard there is a partial sequel to Talion: Revenant. When will we see it?
There is a partial sequel, which means about four chapters and a full outline; as well as notes on five other novels in the set. The second novel is titled Talion: Nemesis. I’d love to write the book, the question is finding the time/money to do it. With digital books taking off, that opportunity might come up fairly soon.
Which A-wing in RETURN OF THE JEDI is the one Tycho is flying?
In RETURN OF THE JEDI there is a point in the Death Star when several fighters are ordered back to the surface to pull some of the TIE fighters off Lando and Wedge. Tycho is in the second A-wing to make that run. (The first A-wing’s pilot is shown and he didn’t look like Tycho to me, so I picked the second pilot, whom you do not see.)
Do you play BattleTech?
Short answer: I have played 3 times, I’ve won each time, so I’ve retired undefeated.
Longer answer: I got into gaming as a board-gamer back in 1972, so I am well versed in how board games work. Before I started writing the BattleTech novels I read the rules, moved ‘mechs about on a board and conducted combats by myself. That gave me the basics of how the game worked and folks at FASA gave me some insights on finer points of strategy.
Because the deadline on the first trilogy was tight (9 months for 3 novels), I never got a chance to play Btech before the books came out. Once they started to come out I faced the expert problem — since I’d done work in that universe, I was assumed to be an expert in the game. That meant players would either seek me out specifically to kill me or would run away. That’s no fun for me.
In writing the combat chapters I actually do roll dice to see if shots hit and to determine where they hit, so I know my way around the combat resolution tables for the game. This knowledge stood me in good stead the three times I played. The first game I played, in fact, was in a Clan Test tournament at Wolfcon, designed by Chris Taylor. My performance (3 kills) was enough to win the tournament. The two subsequent games were also at conventions, were enjoyable, and have left me confident that my understanding of the game is pretty good.
Will you write a ShadowRun novel?
Short answer: I’d love to, but fitting one into my schedule is kind of tough.
Longer answer: Do to a scheduling mix-up I missed a chance in 1992 to write a ShadowRun novel. I have written a number of ShadowRun short stories and novellas and very much like the universe, but FASA and others keep me busy enough that trying to fit one more novel into the schedule is tough. WOLF AND RAVEN, a collection of those short stories, appeared in June of 1998 from Roc.
What is your favorite ‘Mech?
Short answer: The Wolfhound.
Longer answer: The Victor, the Penetrator, the Centurion and the Wolfhound are all favorites of mine for various reasons. The Wolfhound has the edge because I designed it, but the others are great to use in stories.
Will there be a sequel to “Once a Hero?”
Short answer: Maybe, but the earliest it could come out would be 2013.
Longer answer: OAH was contracted as a “stand-alone” novel and was written that way. There are hooks for further stories worked in there, but there is no definative plan for a sequel. Because of my schedule, working on it prior to 2011 is impossible. Whether or not doing a follow- up to the book will interest me at that point in time depends on a lot of different things and can’t be predicted right now.
How can I get my mercenary unit/character mentioned in a BattleTech book?
Short answer: You can’t.
Longer answer: The units and individuals who get mentioned have earned that right. Most often, with FASA’s expressed permission, I offer a role in a novel as a item to be auctioned off for charity. The person who makes it into the book has paid for the priviledge, with the price usually running somewhere between $150 and $300. Another way folks have made it in is to win a championship tournament where FASA has offered being mentioned in a book as a prize.
How long does it take for you to write a book?
Short answer: For a 100,000 word novel it takes approximately 200 hours.
Longer answer: I work fairly fast — there are writers (like Stephen King) who work faster than I do and others (most) who work at a much more thoughtful pace. When you get paid as little as I do to do the books, writing slowly is not an option. I work 3-6 hours a day, depending upon the book and other factors. The month it takes to do a book is usually spread out over a couple of months, but I get bored quickly, so finishing the book fast is important. (The fastest book I’ve written was “Assumption of Risk.” It was done in 28 days which were spread out over a 36 day period.)
Does working in someone else’s universe restrict you?
Short answer: Nope.
Longer answer: Every writer is restricted by the rules of the universe in which he writes. Most writers in SF/Fantasy set their own boundries, so they are comfortable with them. Working in someone else’s universe means you have to learn their rules, but that’s not different from life, so it’s not a hard trick to master. After that I find it a challenge to work around obstacles or to expand the universe in directions where I find it interesting.
There are times someone else’s rules are annoying, but never restricting, just challenging. And if I’m not up to the challenge, I should get into another line of work.
Wouldn’t you really rather be writing real books?
Short answer: These books are real books.
Longer answer: There is an impression that when one is hired to write novels in someone else’s universe they are handed a 75,000 word manuscript and told to add adjectives and proper names. Not so. The books I have done were plotted and written by me. I have had input on items that need to go into the books, but telling me that we need a battle scene on a volcano world is really not telling me what to write.
These books are the best books I can write at the time. I don’t care if they are set in someone else’s universe or are my original creation. My name is on them, which means they are the best I can do. I owe my readers, my employers and myself my best effort.
How much input do you have on the books you write in other people’s universes?
Short answer: A lot.
Longer answer: With BattleTech I consult closely with the FASA staff to figure out the direction in which the universe will be heading. The direction is determined by a series of discussions that builds upon the books I’ve done, others have done, and the desire for game product. Once we reach a consensus, I plot a novel that will do the job we’ve outlined.
The other universes have used a similar process, though the discussions are often less involved than the FASA meetings.
Will you ever do any more “Dark Conspiracy” novels?
Short answer: Not at this time.
Longer answer: I enjoyed writing the FiddleBack trilogy and would be willing to do more in that universe. At this time the rights to the series have reverted to me, but until I can interest another publisher in picking the books up, there’s no reason to look at doing more books in that line.
Do you work from an outline?
Short answer: Yes.
Longer answer: I work from an outline because I need to know where I’m going before I can get anywhere. The outline has enough flexibility in it, though, to allow for changes necessitated by how characters develop and change. Just because I know where the story starts and where it is supposed to end, that doesn’t mean I know exactly what will go on in the middle. Moreover, because books take on a life of their own as they get going, outlines change as the book progresses.
Have you met George Lucas?
Short answer: No.
Longer answer: In July, 1994 I had lunch at Skywalker Ranch, in the restaurant in the main building. I recall looked over at a table to my right and thinking that the guy sitting over there looked a lot like George Lucas. About three seconds later it dawned me that it WAS George Lucas. Walking out of the restaurant I passed within a half-foot of him, but I was cool and didn’t say anything. In the foyer Lucy Wilson told Liz Danforth and me that she would have introduced us, but that Mr. Lucas was having a business lunch.
Liz and I later decided that it was NOT George Lucas, but just as look- alike they hire to test folks like me to see if we’re cool and worthy of working in the universe. If I’d fallen to my knees and kissed his shoes, I’d have been out on my ear. Luckily for me my New England upbringing allowed me to be calm and collected under the circumstances.
What’s the relationship of the stories portrayed in the Dark Horse X- wing comics and the X-wing novels?
Short answer: The comics are prequels to the novels.
Long answer: In preparing to do a series of books, most authors put together a lot of background on their characters. I’d done that for the X- wing books, so when Dark Horse approached me about working on the comic, I saw the comic stories as a great place to actually make use of some of that material. The comic stories, then, provide background information on and details about some of the earlier adventures of the members of Rogue Squadron.
How does it feel to be part of the Star Wars® universe and working on it?
Short answer: Pretty damned cool.
Long answer: Star Wars is a cool universe to work in because of the wide variety of characters and stories in it. Being allowed to flesh out some of the characters from the movies, as well as to explore and develop alien races and customs, has been a lot of fun. The fact is that almost everyone (save my mother) has seen the films, so work set in that universe is instantly understandable for almost anyone who chooses to read the books. The response to the books themselves has been wonderful.
There are times when working on the books is, well, work. Then I’ll sit down and watch television and catch an ad for the new tapes or some toy and it will strike me that what I’m doing is part of the whole Star Wars machine. That’s overwhelming, but very neat, too.
I’m well aware that Star Wars is bigger than I’ll ever be. This fact was brought home to me just after I’d finished the first book. I was having dinner with a friend in a restaurant in New Orleans (Miss Jean’s, 240 Decatur — great food, great desserts and reasonable prices). I was bringing Scott up to speed on what I’d been doing and mentioned both the novels and the comics.
The couple at the next table over finished their meal and the guy at that table came over and put a piece of paper down in front of me. He asked me for my autograph. Remember that since I was talking to a friend, I’d never mentioned my name. He wanted my autograph because of Star Wars — who I actually was really was unimportant.
This is a good anecdote to remember when my ego threatens to slip its bonds and go on a rampage.
What would it take for you [Mike] to read over and comment on a story I’ve [new author] written?
Short answer: A court order
Long answer: I’m under orders by my lawyer to refuse to read over stories by unpublished authors. While I know YOU would never do it, there have been instances where a writer has been sued by someone whose story he read “as a favor.” Avoiding that sort of problem is a good idea, hence my prohibition on reading unpublished stories.
Another problem with unpublished stories (or published stories) is that I have a phobia about being accused of having plagerized someone else’s work. As a result I work hard not to cover the same ground as another author. I don’t want to find myself looking at a story in which there’s a very cool idea — and an idea I might have hit upon on my own — because I won’t allow myself to use it in a story. (While working on Once a Hero I started reading Dennis L. McKiernan’s Eye of the Hunter (Dennis is a wonderful writer) and had to put it down because he began to explore areas I wanted to explore in my book. In another instance of parallelism, Jack Williamson’s book Demon Moon was published in the same month as Once a Hero, and we both used similar narrative styles on the books, down to alternating chapters and viewpoints in the same way. We were unaware of the parallels until over a year later.)
What would it take for you [Mike] to collaborate with me [new author] on a book? I [new author] mean I’d do all the work, you’d just have to put your name [Mike] on the book.
Short Answer: Ain’t gonna happen.
Long Answer:Two questions here, really.
1) I’m not really a good collaborator in that I tend to be something of a control freak. (Resolving how I can be a control freak and still work in other folks’ universes is probably a good 400 hours of counselling away.) I don’t think I’d want to work with anyone as controlling as me, so I can’t imagine why anyone else would want to put up with me. I also tend to spot problems and come up with solutions very fast, which means the landscape would be changing faster than a lot of folks could keep up with. The only collaboration I’ve done in the past has been compartmentalize, and that worked, but even then the walls of my compartment were dented out as I did my best to break free and establish control outside my area.
I should also note that collaborating with me is NOT a way to break into the BattleTech universe. If I needed help writing those books, I’d have gotten it long since, or would have lost the gig. If someone else could turn out the same sorts of books I do in that universe, they’d have been hired ages ago to be writing that sort of book. In other words, anyone who can write the sort of stuff I do wouldn’t need to collaborate to break in.
2) I don’t like the idea of faux collaborations, where one author does the work, but a bigger, better-selling name gets top billing because they came up with an idea for the story. Ideas are CHEAP, but working to make them over into interesting stories takes a lot of hard work. I have notebooks full of story ideas, as does almost every writer. Finding the time and doing the work is the difficult part of the process.
Stories that come out attached to my name will be held to MY standards, not those of a packager willing to pay me to use my name. The only way I can get stories up to MY standard is to write them myself. That’s not ego talking, it’s just a fact. If the junior partner in such a collaboration could already write the same way I do, she’d have plenty of work and wouldn’t need to write under the umbrella of my name.
Ultimately my name is my bond with the reader that, if they have chosen a book of mine that matches their mood and reading tastes, they’ll get more than their money’s worth. That’s what I promise and, I think, that’s what I deliver. Since writers (and artists) are judged by their WORST work, I cannot afford to let anyone else ruin my name, if I want to keep writing.