When the original Elite was released in 1984, it was accompanied by a novella by the late Robert Holdstock. The sequels, Frontier: Elite 2 and Frontier First Encounters likewise came with accompanying written fiction that led the gamers into the world of Elite/Frontier and deepened their sense of the universe that the games were set in.
When the Kickstarter campaign for Elite: Dangerous was set in motion, it was soon accompanied by an offer to aspiring Elite authors: if you pledge £4500 to the game development, you will get the necessary licenses to write your own piece of fiction for the Elite universe. Furthermore, the developers promised to work with the authors to include details from the novels, supposedly place names, into the game.
The first author to accept the challenge was Drew Wagar, who, in a surprise twist, opened a Kickstarter campaign of his own to fund the necessary pledge to the developers. A word of this campaign was quickly circulated in the news around the world and consequently the campaign was successful in reaching its primary goal in only 9 days after its launch and is now reaching for its stretch goals. After such a successful campaign, we just had to contact Drew and he was kind enough to respond to a couple of our questions.
Can you tell us what it is about these games that inspires such devotion that you would go out of your way to be able to write a novel in the Elite universe?
The crucial ingredient with Elite was that the game had no set goal. You went where you wanted, did whatever took your fancy. You could ply the space-lanes as an honest trader, stoop low and become a pirate or work beyond the law as a bounty hunter. There was no score, just cash and reputation. Such an environment lends itself well to story-telling; life aboard ship, life aboard a station or that sense of heading off into the unknown to explore. It’s the wild-west in space. When news broke that Elite was back in the form of Elite:Dangerous I jumped at the chance to write a novel in that universe.
Your Kickstarter campaign earned mainly positive publicity, but there were some doubtful or negative reactions as well. Can you tell us a little about how you felt about this and if the negative comments made you lose your confidence at any point?
Anything that is new and innovative attracts its share of controversy. I had no previous experience of Kickstarter before I came across the Elite:Dangerous project, so it was something of a steep learning curve. I did receive a few denigrating emails early on in which the senders described their intention to shut down my project by complaining to Kickstarter themselves. They seemed to be unaware that Kickstarter themselves have a vetting process and I’d already been granted approval from them.
Others complained about it being a ‘Ponzi’ scheme, without fully understanding what I was trying to achieve. I was after something very concrete; a copyright license. It just so happened that the only way to get that was to pledge on another Kickstarter. David Braben has been very clever in using that to raise funds for the game.
Did it bother me? Anything worthwhile requires fighting for. A writer has to develop quite a thick skin. Unfavourable reviews, rejections and the occasional rant-by-email are part of the course. I did my best to listen to the complaints and take them on board, adjusting my stance as I saw fit. In the end, we’ve been successful, despite the naysayers; I think the results speak for themselves.
Now that your Kickstarter has reached its main goal and you have made the pledge to the main Elite: Dangerous Kickstarter, what is your next step?
The next step is making Elite:Reclamation the best possible book it can be. I feel comfortable in my abilities to write a compelling story, but I’m not the world’s best proof-reader or editor. My old school art teacher would also laugh at my abilities as an artist. To make this book truly great I’ll need an editor and a strong cover design. These don’t come for free, so the stretch goals aim at being able to spend money on these professional services or to fund the best the fan community can offer.
That gives us an excellent ebook, but there is a clamouring for a traditional print paperback. This is all doable, but to interest a publisher we’d have to have the funds to undertake a print run of at least 5,000 copies. That takes money too. Another stretch goal.
A year is an extremely short time to write a first draft of a novel, let alone a finished product. How are you planning to achieve this while having a day job and a family to consider?
I’ve actually got far less than a year when you work out all the details! I anticipate spending a couple of months next year working on the plot, ensuring it’s tight and solid. I expect to take around 7 months to get to a first draft and then the rest of the time will be spent editing, proof-reading and promoting.
I’m confident I can do this because I know how much I can write in a given timespan, based on my previous books. I’ve managed 120k words in a year before, and I’m only aiming for 70-90k for Elite:Reclamation.
I work in London and have a reasonably long commute by train; an hour in each direction. That gives me a lot of time outside of work and family time that I can use which would otherwise be wasted. That said, I couldn’t do this without the support of my family, my wife Anita in particular.
Your earlier fanfic stories were set around the open source Elite clone, Oolite. Can you tell us how you see yourself benefiting from that experience and how the official Elite novel might be different from what we have seen before?
The Oolite Saga was deliberately rather lightweight and jokey. If you read them you’ll notice a lot of in-jokes and references to 80s films and sci-fi shows. This was entirely deliberate at the time, the novels were written for fun, for the fans of Oolite. In hindsight perhaps I could have made them more cohesive, but they weren’t planned as a continuous saga from the beginning.
I learnt a lot about pacing, character development and how to write space combat without it becoming a boring turn, point and shoot affair.
Elite:Reclamation will have a significantly darker tone. There will be no jokes in the narrative, though there may be a little humour in between the drama. It will be hard sci-fi, within the limits set by the Elite universe, dealing with themes of loss, hope and longing. The story arcs will cover revenge, manipulation and brutality in achieving aims against seemingly impossible odds. I hope to portray an acknowledgement of the long wait the fans have had for this next version of Elite.
Have you any plans on the characters yet? Are you going to reintroduce any of the characters from your previous stories in the official novel, or will it be completely stand-alone?
The characters are forming up. I have some early designs on the primary ones and some notes on the minor contributors to the story at this point. I’m a big fan of strong female characters and I can let you into a small spoiler. The main antagonist will be a woman this time, someone to be admired and feared in equal measure. This is unusual, most scifi and fantasy stories have male characters as the primary antagonist – think Darth Vader, Maximilian Reinhardt, Sauron, Khan, Ming and so on – I think this will offer something rather different to what has gone before.
I’m going to avoid any crossover with the Oolite stories, but there may be a subtle cameo for my leading lady from Status Quo, thus passing the torch from Oolite to Elite:Dangerous – see if you can spot it! This new story will be stand-alone and not dependent on anything else I have written.
How about the story? The intriguing title of your Kickstarter leads us to think that you may already have something in your mind for it, but thus far you have been rather close-lipped when asked about it. Is that because you require more information from Frontier Developments about the setting of Elite: Dangerous before you can start planning it?
I have an outline plot at the moment, so I know what the main story arc is and some of the character detail. I’m wary of going too far with it at the moment in case it is incompatible with what David Braben reveals about the game. I’ve asked for this detail, but I guess he has a lot of things on his mind right now! I don’t anticipate getting much more until his Kickstarter finishes in early January.
There are a lot of details I will need. Are there alien races in Elite:Dangerous? When is it set? Is it after Elite, or the later sequels? How do the ships work? What planets and systems exist? What technologies are available to the pilots? What’s the political structure in-game? I want to ensure that Elite:Reclamation aligns with Elite:Dangerous as closely as is possible.
There’s also a little unspoken truth about writing; you must never tell the story to someone before you’ve written it. You risk losing the drive to actually write the story. That said, I’ve set up a website at www.elitereclamation.co.uk where I will reveal bits and pieces as we go through the project.
Finally, what does your family think about the prospect of you using most of your free time for the next year or so writing an Elite novel?
They’re pretty used to me writing books. My wife helps me enormously with the admin side of things and always reads everything I write and offers a lot of valuable criticism, though I get the occasional raised eyebrow when I borrow a familiar mannerism. She makes great tea too!
My two young boys think it’s pretty cool. One in particular has taken to writing stories himself and has even tried a little poetry. Both love science and space in particular.
I’m lucky that the writing doesn’t intrude too much on family time; that long commute has its advantages. My wife works too, including Saturdays, so we try to keep our Sundays sacrosanct for the family to relax.
Thank you, Drew Wagar, for taking the time to answer our questions. I'm sure that we are all looking forward to reading the novel when it comes out in early 2014!