The Big Idea: James Swallow

As the proprietor of The Big Idea, every once in a while I get to pull rank and pop up a book that’s of personal interest to me, and here’s one that is: Air, by James Swallow, which is an adaptation and novelization of the first three episodes of Stargate: Universe, which is, of course, the TV show I am the Creative Consultant on.

Science fiction writers and readers have varying opinions on novelizations and what they mean in the genre, but leaving aside that discussion, I think one thing that’s often overlooked in the discussion is the professionalism of the people doing the novelizations: Here are folks who have to take a script, bump it up to novel length, get it done usually in a short amount of time — and get it right. Yes, that’s work.

In the case of Air, it was brought to my attention when James contacted me during his writing, asking me questions about the show so that what ends up in the TV series is also what ends up in the novel — basically, doing the behind-the-scenes legwork and research that often gets taken for granted by readers (and sometimes, other writers).

I was happy to help him then, and right now, I’m happy to give him the floor to tell you a little more about what it takes to adapt and expand a script into novel form.


“I guess it’s not like you had to do a lot of work, really,” said the guy at the bookseller’s table, with a sniff. ‘I mean, it was pretty much all done for you already, yeah?”

Uh, no.

No, not at all, actually. See, when I was hired on by Fandemonium Books to adapt ‘Air’, the first three episodes of the new television series Stargate Universe, what they asked me to deliver was a novel. That’s why they call it a novelization. Your standard sixty minute teleplay script? You’re looking at under ten thousand words, right there. I had three of ‘em, and I had to turn that into a book that deserved an eight buck cover price. I had to take what I had and, at the very least, expand it to three times its size. And not in the whipped butter kind of way, where they froth it up and pump air into it. No. I had to do it with words and prose and narrative, pitch and moment and drama – and all without breaking the story that had already been created.

I had to fill Air with, well, stuff that wasn’t just air. This is a bit about how I did it.

Air wasn’t my first novelization – I adapted The Butterfly Effect a few years back, getting to put back a lot of the stuff that had been cut in order to get Ashton Kutchner on screen as early as possible. That was a fun experience for me, memorable as it not only introduced my writing to a whole new demographic – teenage high school girls – but because it also got me more fan mail than anything I’d written before. A lot of it was from people asking me how I felt about the movie they had made of my novel.

The way I made Butterfly Effect and now Air work for me was linked to the way that I write. I see my stories unfold in my head like a feature film, and when I’m making notes I use script shorthand to set scenes; I try to write the prose equivalent of whip pans or contra-zooms, wide shots and medium shots. In short, I’m directing it in my head. I took this approach with Air, imagining myself doing the job that episode director Andy Mikita did in the real world – which is a lot more than just adding ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ to the end of Brad Wright’s and Robert C. Cooper’s dialogue.

In some ways I lucked out, because SGU’s producer Joe Mallozzi had a blog full of images from the show in production and of the actors they had cast, so I knew how Air was going to look and what the voices of the people in it would be. But then I was also up against the knowledge that I didn’t know everything about these characters, so I couldn’t lay in nuances and subtle clues that would pay off down the line, and anything new I brought to the party ran the risk of being utterly contradicted by the ongoing show.

And I didn’t have was any opportunity to see the finished cut and edit of the episodes until several weeks after the manuscript had been delivered. While I worked from the three episodic scripts that made up the pilot, I was a good way through the writing before I discovered the drafts I had were months old, with key details that differed from the final versions; it was only thanks to the help of a certain creative consultant that got solved (thanks, John)… The challenge was to paint inside the lines but still deliver something with originality.

So what did all this leave me with? In the end, Air the novel isn’t ‘Air’ the TV episodes, and I’m happy that it isn’t. After all, what would be the point of reading a book that slavishly follows every tiny element of the TV stories? What the novelization brings is what made me read novelizations as a kid – an internal viewpoint for the characters that explores them in a way that TV just can’t do, a seamless story experience that broadens out the scope of the narrative, and a chance to see the bits of plot that were cut for time.

The latter is the kind of thing that DVD extras bring us now, and in no small part I imagine that’s why then novelization is something of a dying art; but back in the day the book of the film was the only place where you saw that kinda thing, like, say, Alan Dean Foster’s tense adaptation of Alien with the chilling cocoon scene still in place. So I put back in Rush’s monologue about the origins of the starship Destiny and the confrontation between him and Jack O’Neill; but I also added new stuff and expanded out what was already there, lengthening scenes and deepening motivations.

There’s a perception that tie-ins are bereft of originality, that they’re a straight-jacket for creativity, and a haunt of lazy writers, but that kind of commentary largely comes from people who don’t read them; generally, from sniffy lit-snobs who complain that tie-ins are stealing all the shelf space in stores and think that all other media are barren artistic wastelands.

In a larger sense, writing a tie-in is no different from the work of TV scriptwriters working on a series that they didn’t create; and when you think about it, writers who adapt a book into a movie are eligible for an Academy Award, while writers who adapt a movie into a book (which requires considerably more writing) are often labeled as hacks.

But the fact is, a great part of telling a tale in one of these fictional worlds is that a writer actually has to work harder under these constraints, and that challenge can inspire you not only tell a tale that fits the texture of the world you’re writing in, but also to bring your own unique authorial voice to bear on it. Plus, you get to play with cool stuff, like Stargates.


Air: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Visit James Swallow’s LiveJournal.

26 Comments on “The Big Idea: James Swallow”

  1. Quick note to folks:

    This will not be the appropriate thread to discuss Stargate: Universe the TV show — there are other places on the site to do that. Use those and keep this thread focused on the book, please. Thanks.

  2. It’s good to see more authors reinforcing Tie-in writers, or tie-ins themselves (in addition to their writers). There’s some truly horrendous ones out there, but there are a lot of really good ones as well. I know author Karen Traviss has talked about this subject at length.
    It’s certainly just as creative, playing with someone else’s universe – you have to play by their rules and make things fit just right. I think that I actually have Mr. Swallow’s Butterfly Effect novelization – the book was a bit better than the film, simply because it explained more.

    John – would you ever write such a book, if given the chance?

  3. Never been a sci-fi lit snob. I think the work done by novelization & tie-in authors is usually quite excellent. For example, I really enjoyed James Swallow’s recent Trek novel “Synthesis”. And I can imagine that it is hard work, and its a shame that many readers would thumb their nose at it.

  4. Andrew Liptak:

    In theory I have no objection to doing one. I’ve turned down offers because it wasn’t the right project for me and/or I had other projects I was working on. My schedule for the near future is pretty full also.

  5. and the serpent swallows it’s tail…

    I’m definitely not in a position to crap on novelizations, seeing as I read through the entire run of Robotech novels (DON’T JUDGE ME!) when I was unable to find any of the tv series past episode 5 for sale (this was in the early 90-ish ear. Novelizations provide a good platform for a competent writer to expand on ideas, conversations and relationships that might have been restricted to a time limit on TV or in the Movie.

    This is especially true if the writer has a compelling vision for the universe that maybe goes beyond what is evident from the source material. Some of those Warhammer 40k books that we all chuckle at when we see them at borders are surprisingly rich for what they are.

    Some of them turn out to be little more than fan fiction, or mary-sues, but some of them are worth it.

  6. I don’t have a problem with novelizations, per se. If it’s a show or movie I like, I’ll read the book if it’s any good.

    For me the novelization of V was stellar, by A.C. Crispin, a stellar piece of SF that also happened to be a good show. I still point people toward the original V novelization. It’s that good.

  7. A novelization is hard, because you have to put in motivations and scenes that may or may not be evident in the shooting (which you don’t get to see anyway.) And to do it for a series that is continuing on— well, that’s not easy, either. If you get something “wrong” the fans may never forgive you.

    I’ve read some good novelizations in my time, though I do largely avoid them. Some things play better in one format or another. But I applaud anyone who can make a visual format work in a literary format.

  8. It’s worth noting, incredible as it may seem, that one of Isaac Asimov’s novels was a novelization. FANTASTIC VOYAGE was a novelization of a screenplay by Harry Kleiner, based on a story by Jerome Bixby and Otto somebody-or-other. Presumably Asimov wanted to flesh out (no pun intended) or correct what they had written. Or simply have fun. Heaven knows he always had plenty of ideas of his own. Anyway, there are still people today who will try to tell you that the movie was based on an Asimov novel, when in reality …

  9. Well, now I’ve got a specific book to ask for as a stocking stuffer!

    Just as with any piece of writing, good stuff is good stuff, and if it helps expand the story and characters, I think it’s well worth the time to read.

  10. Novelizations must be so difficult to write. I didn’t know how difficult until James Swallow described the process. I’ve read good and bad tie-ins. I must put this on my list to read.

  11. This was a very helpful article to read. I just got contracted with my first novelization assignment, and I can use all the advice I can get about how it’s done. Frankly, I’m not that familiar with the medium. Now I know what book to run out and buy to do a compare/contrast.

  12. IIRC Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is a novelization based on the screenplay he wrote with Stanley Kubrick.

  13. “writers who adapt a book into a movie are eligible for an Academy Award, while writers who adapt a movie into a book (which requires considerably more writing) are often labeled as hacks.”

    Hear, hear!

    It’s worth noting, however, that many of us ARE hacks.

    So there you go.

  14. As someone who grew up reading Star Trek novels, I’ve never understood why it’s so looked down upon to read media tie-ins. There’s a lot of good stuff in them.

    Also, I’ll look for Air. :) The actual show hasn’t caught my interest well enough for me to keep watching it, but I did see the first three episodes, and it’ll be fun to compare.

  15. A novelization of a favorite show is a neat bit of luxury. Free of that 42-minute limit, an author can really delve into the details of a story and flesh out scenes.

    Neat to read about the process and the challenges. Thanks for posting this.

  16. John, since you did a “The Big Idea” on a novelization, how about a “The Big Idea” on a TV show. The series “Flash Forward” for instance. The premise for that show and the implications of it just fascinate me.

  17. I remember reading Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye in the early 80s. Movies and action figures weren’t enough. When my cat ate the Millennium Falcon, I needed another way into the Star Wars universe. So I found portals tucked away in the folds of a weathered paperback. Before Splinter I’d never thought of such books. It was this book that turned me on to the Star Trek books, which in turn led me to Scalzi’s SGU decades later. Time is weird. I enjoyed The Butterfly Effect. I’ll check your book out next time around.

  18. This book may be available in the UK before we have a chance to see the TV series. Would we lose anything by reading the book first?

  19. I tend to steer away from novelizations. Sometimes, however, they’re brilliant.
    How often do you see a movie based on a book and say that the book was better? Most of the time, right? Sometimes the movie is better, but that’s rare.
    A movie or TV show has a block of time in which to convey a story and has to keep it entertaining. A book has flexibility in that regard. Keep it entertaining, sure, but the book can convey so much that can’t be illustrated successfully.
    The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy works best as text or audio because so much of what makes it work is the phrasing and explanations. The movie lost

    Keeping the original storyteller is involved in the conversion is extremely valuable. I liked the Red Dwarf book “Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers” more than the series (and I loved the series) because the two who wrote the show also wrote the book. It was their story and they were able to introduce a lot of material that never made it to screen.

    Sometimes it’s just having the right author. While they’re series related instead of actual novelizations, I have a bunch of the Star Trek:TNG books. When picking out my favorites I found that Peter David had written all but one of them.

    Then you get those novelizations that you’re sure were written by the publisher’s nephew or are based on “Ernest Goes To…” level movies. So it all depends.

  20. Some of my favorite writers have written tie-ins: Sherwood Smith, Alan Dean Foster, Diane Duane (I think she wrote some kick-butt Star Trek), the ones mentioned already on this thread, and Vonda MacIntire. I’m sure there are more. Translating what is on a script, or directly from film, is not easy; especially to satisfy the fans of that particular movie/TV show.

    Good luck!

  21. Um, that “good luck” did not come out the way I meant it to come out. Good fortune and success to you with translation and sales.

  22. I am a voracious reader of science-fiction, and in addition to “real” SF, I’ve read a lot of novelizations and tie-ins. Like anything else, some are quite good and some are quite bad. However, some really tremendous authors have done this kind of work. Joe Haldeman, who wrote The Forever War (and who has won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards), wrote two Star Trek novels!

    What I like most about novelizations is the insight it gives to earlier drafts of screenplays. From what I understand, the authors rarely work from a final shooting script, since the book and the movie are generally timed for release at the same time. The novels for Star Treks 2-4 by Vonda N. McIntyre fill in a lot of the gaps. The novels that followed the StarGate story in a totally different direction from SG-1 provide entertaining stories as well as a fascinating “what if?” scenario.

    One of the craziest, though, has got to be the novelization of Gremlins. That movie is a favorite from my childhood, but the book goes in some strange directions. Who knew that Gizmo was genetically engineered by an alien scientist from another planet?

  23. Novelisations that come out early do have problems. I can remember years ago looking at the novelisation of Mad Max II (AKA the Road Warrior) and finding that it had a completely different ending from the film; they’d presumably made an abrupt change after delivering the author’s copy of the script.

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