#60 Jim Luceno

James Altucher interviewed Jim Luceno to talk Star Wars, writing, and the persistence (and luck) it takes to succeed. I’m a fan of Star Wars, but the pair really get into the Tatooine weeds with some of the things they talk about. If you’re not a fan, it’s still worth a listen because there are some good lessons about writing and persistence, and not until the end do the pair talk all Star Wars.
Star Wars Cantina. Photographed by Colin Kenworthy

Jim is a franchise writer, and becoming one wasn’t easy. Luceno has written over 30 novels and 9 Star Wars books, but had very modest beginnings. His first exposure to Star Wars was going with a friend – Brian Daley –  to see A New Hope. Daley is one of the most popular Star Wars franchise writers, penning the Han Solo Adventures and adapting Star Wars for the radio.

After hearing about his connection to Daley, Altucher mentions that innovative groups inspiring and challenging each other is a thread woven through Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators. I haven’t read that yet, but it was true about the Steve Jobs bio. Jobs could literally stumble into new discoveries because of the number of engineers that lived on his street. For Jobs this was incredibly influential, because these neighbors were the right mix of intelligence and technical know how.

In the book Jobs credits his father for teaching him the master craftsman mindset, sharing a story about asking his dad why they finish cabinets with the same wood on the back and not something cheaper. His father tells him that while the customer may never see it, he would know it was there.  Good groups also came up in Altucher’s interview with Brian Koppelman in their discussion of the Mayfair club, which produced a number of World Series of Poker top ten finishers before the club was shut down.

Luceno began writing when his travels led him to wonder if, “maybe there’s a story in there.” Building an actual career took a long time though, he tells Altucher, that after his first few novels he knew “I was going to have to keep being a carpenter.” During this time he built up his litany of work; writing more novels and then being invited to, and selling his first TV script in the late ‘80’s.  Even during the first few years of writing full time, he never felt like he had left carpentry behind.

Now he no longer worries, but tells James each Star Wars book takes “about a year of work.” In the interview Luceno explains that the procedure is much less structured than I would have thought. In my mind, Luceno would enter a secret vault, deep underground at Skywalker Ranch, where a war room with dozens of employees monitor the master plan. Los Alamos for the Star Wars universe. Not quite. Rather Luceno spends months “thinking and research” and then makes an outline for the people at Lucasfilm (now Disney). There they might make a few minor tweaks or suggestions. It’s quite hands-off.

It’s a similar story to the one Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez tell on NPR’s Fresh Air about writing the music for Frozen.  Robert might seem a bit of an odd choice for Disney’s next musical juggernaut considering that his last writing assignment was for The Book of Mormon, about as a non-Disney collection of songs as you can get. Rather than being strong armed, the pair say they had almost complete freedom, the only constraint was not being able to say god. In the interview Kristen explains a double entendre I had missed.  In an early song when one of the sisters is opening the castle doors to outsiders for the “first time in forever” she sings with joy;

“The window is open, so’s that door.
I didn’t know they did that anymore.
Who knew we owned eight thousand salad plates?
For years I’ve roamed these empty halls.
Why have a ballroom with no balls?
Finally they’re opening up the gates”

Once Luceno completes his research and outline – maybe a few months without writing – he begins. He writes in the afternoon and says that each book is like the first book. “There’s always that period in that first couple of weeks  of writing where I’m going I don’t know how to do this, I can’t remember how to do this. But that’s where the sweat comes in to it you just have to stick with and break through that initial period of uncertainty.”

A common theme to the interview is how much Luceno persisted in his writing career. He started very slowly, gathering his material from his personal travels and not until many years after did he pass the point of not having to worry about returning to carpentry. Luceno defeated what Steven Pressfield calls resistance, and writes, “we’re wrong if we think we’re the only ones struggling with Resistance. Everyone who has a body experiences Resistance.” This is the force that tells you not to do something, that keeps you on the couch rather than writing or running. It’s the force that Luceno squared up to and bullied out of the way so he could write about The Force.

That there is no Star Wars master plan makes sense, as the universe has grown since the 1977 release of the movie. As a Star Wars fan, but not a Fan, there was surprisingly little I knew about the actual Star Wars movie, and what a history it has. United Artists, Walt Disney Pictures, and Universal Pictures all passed on financing the movie, calling it “a little strange.” The written script took a number of major changes. The Wikipedia page gives a complete telling that I couldn’t justly summarize here.

One great things about Star Wars, is the fan works exist, like this video version about the  influences to Star Wars:

If you want to Nerd out a bit more:

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