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Not too short for a stormtrooper: Why eBook novelettes are a great idea

The_Perfect_Weapon_final_cover[1](This is my last piece going up before The Force Awakens, and it’s a little odd to be writing a piece about the future direction of Star Wars publishing with that on the immediate horizon but this piece was prompted by the Journey to the Force Awakens short stories that released last week and what they presage for SW literature. As much as TFA is dominating my thoughts, the franchise is going to continue going full steam ahead right after release with more novels and supplemental materials: the movie’s just the beginning. So with that, I’ll jump back into the pluralis majestatis and get this thing started.)

Star Wars has a long history with short stories. Some of the best EU works ever written were published as short stories in WEG’s Star Wars Adventure Journal, while the Tales From anthologies were commissioned to expand storytelling to the fringe scenes and characters of the original films. Video games such as X-Wing, TIE Fighter, and Galactic Battlegrounds came with their own short fiction and the Hyperspace feature of the Official Site allowed members of the Star Wars Fan Club to read exclusive fiction content. Magazines such as Star Wars Gamer and Star Wars Insider also ran fiction, and Insider in particular continues to run short stories in this new canon era.

These short stories really pushed the bounds of the Star Wars narrative by focusing on peripheral characters and storylines that might not have justified or sustained a mainstream novel. The short story format allowed the publishers to take risks, releasing tales that did not need to meet the same marketing calculus that a full novel or novel series might. Publishers were also able to use a larger stable of authors, given that a magazine or anthology could offer many more writing slots than a year-long novel-publishing calendar might. Star Wars short stories expanded the universe in every sense of the term: by focusing on everyday characters, the galaxy just seemed like larger and more vibrant place. There was only ever one problem: these stories were not “available wherever books are sold” as the novels were, and unless one obtained a particular issue of a journal or magazine, it was pretty difficult to get a hold of these stories once they were published. The Tales From anthologies were different, because they were released like novels.The-Crimson-Corsair[1]

We’ve long championed the potential of short stories to tell interesting stories and showcase different authorial talents. Last week’s release of five Journey to The Force Awakens eBook shorts by Delilah S. Dawson and Landry Q. Walker provides an excellent demonstration of how the combination of the short story structure and the eBook format allows Star Wars publishing to have the flexibility to tell great stories and also to have the wide accessibility to reach a larger audience.

Making us care about scum and villany

Just like with the old Tales From series, the new Journey to the Force Awakens ebooks tell the story of what might otherwise be background characters (as far as we know right now). These characters were first teased in the early Vanity Fair article about The Force Awakens, where we saw them as the denizens of Mas Kanata’s castle. Delilah S. Dawson wrote a gripping adventure about Bazine Netal, a female human mercenary, which managed to fully explore the character in the span of sixty pages. Landry Q. Walker wrote four short stories in a collection that explicitly hearkens back to the old Bantam anthologies, where each of the stories in Tales From A Galaxy Far, Far Away: Aliens manages to be different in tone and focus but also genuinely enjoyable. These stories will be available later in a physical format, but they were released digitally last week.

Dawson’s story, “The Perfect Weapon”, is the longest of the five, and stars a central protagonist that’s a welcome addition to the new canon’s growing collection of interesting female characters. Bazine Netal grew up with a hardscrabble life before learning how to become a mercenary, and she prides herself on her observational and camouflaging skills. Sent to a Rim world to obtain a mysterious package, Bazine’s mercenary mentor saddles her with a young trainee who provides her (and the audience) with a chance to learn more about her own development through her interactions with a companion she regards as a bit of a pest. The central plotline hints at The Force Awakens in some way or another we’re sure, and there are some interesting contextual details on the political state of the galaxy – but despite the JtTFA banner, nobody should read this story expecting revelations for the film. Instead, it should be read because Dawson sketches a compelling and interesting character in the span of a few pages. Bazine gets a great arc and despite not caring much for mercenaries, we left the story somewhat sad that the tale was finished.

All-Creatures-Great-And-Small[1]Walker produces four short stories about other denizens of Maz Kanata’s castle, each of them different in style and subject. As the titles of the Aliens anthology reveals, the tales focus on characters which are not human. “All Creatures Great and Small” is about the famous Bobbajo, a crittermonger and storyteller. It’s essentially an inset story, where the reader is treated to Bobbajo’s tale while also experiencing the larger framing narrative. There are certain fantastic elements to Bobbajo’s tale, but many storytellers might say that credulity isn’t always the point. The framing story and the inset story have their parallels, which is a good way to handle these (indeed, it’s how a personal favorite – the Metamorphoses of Apuleius handles the inset “Cupid and Psyche” story) because the reader gets added value from each story. Bobbajo’s story speaks to the framing story and the framing story speaks to the inset story. We won’t spoil anything about the actual stories though, because they’re fun.

“High Noon on Jakku” is a bit of a western, as the title implies, and Constable Zuvio of Jakku’s Niima Outpost must solve the mystery of a bank robbery. It’s not that difficult of a mystery, but it’s a fun story. “The Face of Evil” is about a human thief interacting with the creepy mad scientists working at Maz Kanata’s castle, who makes a deal to obtain their help in order to escape justice. It’s a darker story, with shades of the macabre put in. We read it first, and thought it very unusual for Star Wars but that’s a good thing in this context. Finally, “The Crimson Corsair and the Lost Treasure of Count Dooku” is a great pirate adventure story full of twists and turns. It’s hilarious, delightful, and is bound to make the red-helmeted Corsair confusingly popular to anybody who just sees him as a movie extra.

All five stories are pretty different, and prove the virtue of the short story: allowing for exploring different types of stories without the pressures inherent in a full novel (witness the drama generated by Aftermath and Chuck Wendig’s stylistic choices). Personally, we welcome experimentation and authorial new blood in novels as well – but if that’s going to be significantly harder to achieve, short stories are how to accomplish that.

Just remember, don’t read these expecting revelations for The Force Awakens. Read them and expect fun Star Wars stories about characters you’d otherwise never think twice about. If you only wanted to get one or two, we’d recommend either Dawson’s “The Perfect Weapon” for a great all-around story with a well-developed character or Walker’s “The Crimson Corsair” for a fun-filled romp that’ll leave you grinning.

Bottom line: eBooks are cheap and accessible

So these five short stories are pretty great. They’re cheap enough that it’s not difficult to buy all of them and still spend less than a single hardcover novel. But most importantly, they’re accessible. There are no fan club or magazine subscriptions required, no back orders to obtain, and they’re not video game tie-ins. We’ve been a big supporter of the Star Wars Insider short stories – and those stories do come with excellent art that it’d be difficult to get in another format – but they’re not the most accessible.

Ideally, Star Wars Insider would continue to publish short stories since subscribers and readers have gotten used to the high-quality short stories coupled with artwork. But those short stories would be accompanied by a robust eBook format of short stories. Del Rey has indicated in the past that it’s not easy to publish a short story anthology because that takes up a valuable publishing slot for an original novel. We’re completely unsure if eBooks are the same, and they may well be (the publishing side of things might not consider the format difference to be significant) but if they’re not, then eBooks would be a great avenue to increase the variety and quality of Star Wars storytelling available.

In fact, “All Creatures Great and Small” is a good stand-in for the value of a short story, even more than the Tales From moniker. Short stories allow us to explore those smaller characters, whose stories add color and depth to a galaxy otherwise sketched by the titanic figures of the films and novels. You can learn a lot about a setting by looking at the characters who live on the margins of storytelling – and remember that the margins of storytelling might not mean the margins of the galaxy. We could easily envision a Tales From the Galactic Core or Tales From the Imperial Opera – granted we might be the sole member of the audience for the latter, but the idea holds. Characters who don’t get the focus in novels, like strange species of aliens or professions which aren’t heroic or exciting in the traditional sense are ideal subjects for short stories. Star Wars has been great with character diversity in the new canon — at least on the gender and human racial front — but we can do even more.

Sometimes it’s fun to take a step back from the epic mythology of Star Wars, from the gritty warfare, and from the high politics and just enjoy a good ol’ story with this wonderful Star Wars galaxy as its backdrop. Mystery, romance, adventure, comedy – let’s get some interesting stories. The films are going to be experimenting with genre, and Star Wars publishing should very well continue to do so.

3 thoughts to “Not too short for a stormtrooper: Why eBook novelettes are a great idea”

  1. “Bottom line: eBooks are cheap and accessible”, except they’re not.

    Like most Star Wars fans who DO NOT live in the US the four stories by Walker are not available in digital format – license agreements prevent their availability outside US/Canada – we have to wait for the collected print version next year or obtain copies illegally.

    Printed stories, such as those published in Insider, are far more accessible for fans WORLDWIDE as they have the option of at least being able to purchase it.

    1. Thank you for pointing that out — I hadn’t considered digital publishing restrictions. I would think that exploring solutions that simplify accessibility to ebooks would be the way to go, as non-US markets still have all the accessibility issues that US markets do regarding print magazines as well as the additional difficulty of importing magazines.

      Ultimately, it’s not a zero sum issue and the lack of ebook availability doesn’t make magazines any less problematic. But there are room
      For both — magazine short fiction is not as lengthy as ebook short fiction, but is accompanied by full illustration. The different media work for different stories and I would like both to continue. That’s my ultimate thesis: I liked the ebooks and I think they’re a worthy distribution and content medium, and it’s not at the expense of Insider fiction or full novels.

      I hope that other markets can get access to ebooks though — I have heard of issues where publishers in other countries were not making ebook editions of full novels available, either.

      Edit: oh, I actually neglected an important point. These ebooks will all be collected and published in a physical format that will be available worldwide.

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