Sean Cunningham - Author

Epic adventure. Vivid characters. Amazing worlds.

Category: writing process

How Close to Darth Vader is Too Close to Darth Vader?

Stephen Erikson, author of enormous Malazan series, wrote a blog post about the uses of psychic distance from a character. Or, to put it another way, he started writing Gardens of the Moon from Andomander Rake’s perspective. Then he restarted it from the perspective of other people around Rake. Result: Anomander Rake comes across as a massive and terrifying badass.

Being in Rake’s head would humanise him. You’d see his doubts, his faults, his hesitations, all tamping down the awesomeness of him being an immortal warrior with a sword that devours souls.

Darth Vader is like this.

I’ve been watching and reading fiction featuring Darth Vader my whole life. My view of him has evolved as the experience of watching him has expanded. Most recently, I experienced Vader through Keiron Gillen’s excellent comics series, Paul Kemp’s novel Lords of the Sith, and Rogue One.

Especially that corridor scene at the end of Rogue One. Oh my, yes.

From Afar

At first, Darth Vader is a stark figure in black armour, stalking through the white hallways of the Rebel ship in A New Hope. He is merciless. He is relentless. He is an inhuman monster with a cold and lethal temper.

We close in on Vader through the course of the original trilogy, but not much. The reveal at the end of Empire Strikes back makes him more horrifying, not less. Yes, he’s human enough to be a father, but he cuts off his own son’s hand. And in Return of the Jedi, though leashed to the Emperor, he is still a terrible force of death. (And makes the Emperor more frightening for that reason.)

In Close

The prequels were not the story we expected.

Instead of the tale of a great man falling into darkness, we had a lost and petulant boy. This is, I think, the great failure in the writing of Anakin Skywalker: that he is not great.

It is hard to imagine that terrifying black mask ever housing a petulant thought.

Imagine instead a rift forming between Obi-Wan and Anakin. As the Republic totters, Obi-Wan holds to the ideals he’s always held. Anakin, with the Chancellor whispering in his ear, comes to believe that far more drastic measures are necessary. This would be a perfect reflection of the greater struggle between democracy and authoritarianism playing out across the Republic. Some final act shatters the bond between the two men, a line Obi-Wan cannot cross, a line Anakin thinks they must cross.

And then, lightsabers on Mustafar.

Unfortunately, we got petulance.

But About That Novel

I will say that I loved the novelisation of Revenge of the Sith. It goes some way to making Anakin and Obi-Wan epic heroes. The fall is therefore much harder. That book hooked me from the first page. I devoured it.

But it’s still working with the same storyline.

Lords of the Sith

Paul Kemp has a tricky job in Lords of the Sith. As I’ve proposed above, Darth Vader is best viewed from a distance. But a novel is all about the interiority of its characters. You have to get in Vader’s head.

And in this novel you do, but…

This, I think, is the clever trick of Lords of the Sith. You’re in Vader’s head plenty of the time, but when you are, he’s mostly thinking about his master. The Emperor is there, with him. The Emperor is the power Vader measures himself against and knows, for now, that he is inferior to. And the Emperor knows this calculation is running through Vader’s mind. He knows his apprentice is looking for the right opportunity to turn on him.

When you do view Vader from outside, its from the point-of-view of the unfortunate resistance fighters who find they’re up against him. Then the novel’s interiority works well. Because yes, Vader is terrifying. Watching him cut his way through your team of tough true believers is going to give you the willies.

Kemp treads the line well. This is still Vader partially humanised, which I’m not sure is ever to the character’s benefit. But you don’t come away from the end of the novel thinking Darth Vader is anything less than a badass.

Kieron Gillen’s Darth Vader – Masked Again

In Gillen’s comic series, we’re on safer ground. Vader is once again an inhuman mask of blank eyes and an immobile grill instead of a mouth. Gillen gives us flashbacks to moments of Anakin Skywalker, but these are few and far between. Usually you, the reader, are left to remember these past moments yourself.

Watching Vader cut off someone’s hand? Ride a lava flow on a plate of steel? Vader makes no comment. But you know he’s been here before.

Gillen does an excellent job of distilling Darth Vader down to the core of what makes him tick without sacrificing anything. I loved reading these comics. I go back to them when time allows.

Rogue One

And then there’s that corridor scene at the end of Rogue One.

This is the monster of my childhood. The inhuman silhouette. The blood-red glow of his lightsaber. The pause to let the Rebel soldiers see, to be afraid. This is the armoured demon I remember watching stride through A New Hope when I was little.

Even his earlier moments, in which you see what’s left of him floating in a bacta tank, don’t detract from him. You are reminded that he is monstrous to behold. And then, when he almost chokes Director Krennic to death, you are reminded of his temper. That lethal temper.

Rogue One gets Darth Vader right.

Other Applications

Anomander Rake is the better for using this technique of distance from a character. I’ve used it as well. In my second novel, The Mortal Edge, you never step into the point of view of the primary villain, Mitch Longfield. Mitch is a mastermind, moving different factions of London’s shadow world this way and that, manipulating the book’s heroes, always striving towards his own goal. But you watch him do it from the point of view of the vampire Dean Mawson. And Mitch doesn’t tell Dean everything.

Novel offer us, the reader, something no other form of media really can: a look inside the heads of its characters. But sometimes, just sometimes, we’re better off looking from nearby.

Which leaves you with the question: how to Darth Vader is too close to Darth Vader?

Seven Things You DON’T Need to Worry About When Starting Your Novel

You’re thinking about writing but you can’t seem to start. You’re afraid to start. How do you kick yourself into action? How do you turn yourself into a war machine of wordy output?

In this post, I’ll walk you through the steps you need to take. Starting from well before you even put your first word on the page, all the way through to typing The End (or To Be Continued).

You doubt you can do it, but you can.

Don’t Worry about Fancy Software

You’re thinking, “The right tool for the right job.” What quill does JK Rowling use, and which shop in Diagon Alley did she buy it from? Where do George R R Martin’s blood-soaked words first come into the world? Maybe you’ve heard about Scrivener, or you Googled writing tools and up came thirty results all promising you that they’re the future all authors will move towards.

It doesn’t matter. Use Microsoft Word. Use Google Docs. Use a notebook from your local stationery store and a ballpoint pen from a cheap pack of ten. Whatever you have to hand. Whatever you’re comfortable writing in. That’s the right one for you.

I started with a ballpoint pen and loose lined A4 paper attached to a clipboard. It’s what I had available. These days I use Word. I tried Scrivener but it tied me to a single computer. With Word I can move between my desktop computer and a Chromebook, where I use Microsoft’s free online version of Word. I wanted the mobility and this setup does the job for me.

Don’t Worry about the Market

You think you need to write what’s in vogue right now. But that can leave you writing about something you’re not interested in. It can make writing a horrible chore. You’ll hate every minute of it.

Not long before writing this post, I read an interview with the people who run Wattpad. They have, in effect, real time data on what their users are searching for. Werewolves are growing in popularity. You could try to ride that werewolf wave.

But if the idea bouncing around in your head is a story about two tech support guys who purge haunted computers of the poltergeists that drive hapless finance departments insane by fiddling with their numbers in Excel spreadsheets, you should write that.

Because your sheer love of your topic will come through in your writing. And your reader will feel that, and enjoy your story too.

Don’t Worry about the Length

A standard novel from a traditional publisher is between 75 and 160 thousand words long. Some genres allow a little longer, or a little shorter, but that’s the general rule. And while readers do expect that length, it’s really just habit.

Because the length of novels has a lot to do with the economies of paper book manufacture. That word-count range is cost-effective for print.

But ebooks can be any length. You could write a 25 thousand word novella, upload it to Amazon and put a price of 99 cents/pence on it. That’s totally okay.

25K words isn’t so hard. If you’re just starting out, it might be a good target.

Don’t Worry about the Opening

You have to hook your reader from the first sentence, you’ve been told. If you don’t get it right, the reader will drop your book at the first full stop. So you don’t start until you have that perfect first sentence. They make lists of the best first sentences in novels. You want to be on that list.

Don’t do that.

Start with a couple of characters and a scene. That’s it. Ideally, have a conflict between the two characters. You might know these characters well or they might just be silhouettes. You might know how the scene plays out. You might find out as you go.

You’re in the discovery phase when you start. You’re learning about your characters, your setting and your story. So start and discover. You can change it later in the editing stage, if it needs it.

For example, when it came time to edit the first draft of Ghost Electricity, I swapped chapters 1 and 2 around, then rewrote the opening from the other character’s point of view. I needed to see it on the page to know it needed doing.

Don’t Sit Down to Write Without Knowing What’s Next

If you sit down at your computer, open up your work in progress and only then ask yourself, “What’s next?” you’re going to struggle.

That ten minutes you spend sitting there wondering what’s next will be awfully disheartening. You will feel like you’ve got nothing to say, like you’re not going to make it at this writing thing, like you’ll never get to the end of your novel.

Instead, at various times during the day, think about what comes next. Remind yourself why your story excites you. Think about it on your commute or while you’re waiting in line for coffee. If all else fails, jump in the shower right before you start writing and think about it then.

That way when you sit down to write, you’ll hit the ground running.

Don’t Talk Yourself Out of It

At some point when writing a novel you’re going to think, “This is crap. I should give up.”

Every writer thinks this somewhere in their novel. Usually a few times. Just keep going. When you come back to it in the editing stage, you’ll probably find it’s not as bad as you feared. The scene your thought was terrible may work. It may need some tweaking. It may need replacement. None of these things is a reason to give up.

Don’t abandon your novel. Keep going.

Don’t Stop Until the End

You will be tempted to go back and fix or change something as you write your first draft. Maybe you changed your mind on a plot point. Maybe you want to drop a minor character.

Don’t do it. Your job when writing the first draft is to get to the end. If you change your mind on anything at all, just pretend you started that way and keep going. Keep that momentum.

Get to the end of the novel. It’s the most important thing you can do when you’re writing your first draft.


Writing a novel takes time. It takes work. It takes commitment. But like many things, it’s just a matter of getting yourself going. If any of the above fears – or all of them – are stopping you, now you know what you can do about it.

So don’t worry. Get writing and find out where your story is going to take you.

5 Reasons Why Every Author Should Keep a Notebook

In the age of mobile phones, everyone has a note-taking device in their pocket. Every note you take is uploaded and stored online and never lost. There are many free and paid note-taking and organising apps. You’ll find one that suits you in the Apple or Android store.

It’s convenient. It’s instantly backed up. It’s with you wherever you go.

But you should still have a notebook.

I used to keep all my notes in Evernote. Now I’ve converted to a physical notebook. A notebook does not replace the note-taking capacities of a phone, but it does greatly augment it. Here are 5 reasons why you should give pen and paper a try.

1) The Notes App Black Hole

You found a link you like. Maybe it was then-and-now photos of London. Or it was the effects of a specific poison. Or the lyrics of a song you found interesting. “I’ll want that later,” you thought. So you copied it into Evernote.

And never saw it again.

Unless you are frequently in the habit of scrolling through your notes app, it is a hole into which ideas fall and never return. Like they’ve fallen right out of the universe.

But when you write in a physical notebook, you create an index page where you list the title and page number of everything you put in there. Eg:

126 – Eternal Fascism

128 – Leviathan in Mythology

131 – What Jobs to UK Workers Actually Do?

You can run your eye down this list and recall the interesting, weird and wonderful things that caught your attention. The Bullet Journal link above suggests leaving a few pages blank at the front of the notebook. This didn’t work for me. I put mine at the back, so it can get as long as it needs to.

And if you come across random sentences or paragraphs that you like, do what I do: have a page titled “Scribbles” and jot them down for later.

2) All in One Place

Maybe you’ve tried this before and you hit the Too Many Notebooks wall. You know, one notebook for research notes, another for story drafts, another for blog posts. You can’t use the same notebook for different things because how can you make notes on “How to Optimise Facebook Alerts” when you’re only halfway through planning out a story idea featuring whisky bootleggers and mermaids?

It’s easy.

Use the Bullet Journal concept called threading. This is another reason to number your pages. Stop making notes on your whisky bootleggers on page 50. Write about Facebook alerts on pages 51 and 52. Resume the bootlegger/mermaid action on page 53.

And then, on page 50, in the bottom margin, put an arrow pointing forwards through the book and the number “53”. On page 53, in the bottom margin, put an arrow pointing back through the book and the number “50”.

As you page through the book, you can follow the thread of one topic when it jumps over another.

You can even switch to a different colour pen when you go from topic to topic. I don’t do this, exactly, but if I’m ever scribbling fiction in my notebook I try to use a blue pen, while using a black pen for everything else.

3) Space and Time

Handwriting activates the parts of your brain involved in thinking and memory. The act of writing also creates spatial relationships between memories as you create them. This will help with recall.

Have you ever heard of the method of loci? Maybe you know it by its more modern name: memory palace. It involves associating ideas with locations in your mind to aid recall. The ancient Romans and Greeks used it.

Make your notebook your memory palace.

4) Makes you Think

“But writing is slow and tedious!” you say.

Yes. Yes it is. That’s the point.

Because it’s slow and tedious, you will try to find economical ways to phrase what you’re writing. You’ll pare it down to the minimum. You will, in other words, have to understand it. You’ll apply your critical-thinking claws to the idea’s soft underbelly. You will chew the idea into a tasty concept that your brain enjoys digesting.

Typing encourages verbatim notes. Handwriting encourages mental engagement.

5) The Warm Glowy Pleasure of Full Notebooks

There is a simple pleasure in a stack – even a small stack – of full notebooks. You can look at that stack and think, “Hey, that’s a lot of thoughts.”

When you start a new notebook, put the start date at the top of the index page. When you finish it, add the finish date beside it.

Grin a little bit. Go ahead. It’s awesome.

Don’t Delete your Notebook App Yet

Which is not to say you shouldn’t make notes on your phone. You might be standing in a queue at the falafel stall at the food market and the Lorde cover of Everybody Wants to Rule the World starts playing on the falafel maker’s Spotify and it triggers an idea for a scene with the mermaid and her cave of hoarded whisky and the person in the queue in front of you probably won’t be cool with you using their back to steady your notebook while you scribble in it.


So tap that idea into your phone with your thumbs and order your falafel. But don’t let that be the end of it. Later, shift it over to your notebook. I’ll bet you your next falafel that what you write in your notebook is longer, more fully formed and much more satisfying than whatever you thumbed into your phone.

For that “Got to get it down now” scenario, I use Google Keep. It’s quick and easily accessible on my phone. But I regularly scour my Keep notes and transfer what I find into my physical notebook. And once they’re in there, they tend to attract more words. More ideas. More connections.

And later, when you need it, you’ll still remember that idea. Maybe not the full details, but enough to know that it’s time has come. You’ll open your notebook to the index, then flick through to the numbered page where you scribbled it all down, interpret your handwriting and think, “Yes, that’s right. I remember it all now.”

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